Thursday 9 September 2021
[Dr Rupa Huq in the Chair]
Covid-19: Immunology Research
Before we begin, may I encourage Members to wear masks when they are not speaking, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission? Although the Xs on the seats have now gone, please give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the room.
Members should send their speaking notes to our colleagues at Hansard—the email address is email@example.com. Similarly, officials should communicate electronically with Ministers rather than pass them notes, as happened in the old days.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the role of immunology research in responding to the covid-19 outbreak.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Dr Huq. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing me the opportunity to highlight one of the many successes for this nation. Unlike yesterday, the Minister will have an easy ride in responding to my comments, and hopefully to the comments of other Members as well.
Every one of us across this great nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland recognises the good work that has brought about the vaccines, to deal with covid-19 in a way that could never have happened if we had still been in the European Union. I am not looking for any discussion about Brexit, but we had the independence to roll out the vaccines. The Government had the foresight to do that, and the Prime Minister put the Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment, who is present, in charge of making that happen.
Every one of us recognises that the Minister and his team across the whole of the United Kingdom, in co-operation with all the regions of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, have made this happen. We are eternally grateful to them for that. I wanted to put that on the record first, because it is so important to say that we are where we are today because of the strategy of our Government, the work of the vaccine Minister and—I say this as a Christian—the prayers of God’s people. We have seen the championship of community working together.
I participated in a Westminster Hall debate over in Portcullis House; it is so nice to come back to the real Westminster Hall and to claim my seat in this corner of the room. Hon. Members have asked me why I sit here. It is because I always sit here—I think my name is written on the seat. We had a fantastic debate in Portcullis House on the issue of communities working together, and many of us took the opportunity to speak of how our communities had come together. As elected representatives, we can all subscribe to the belief that whenever the chips are down, the goodness of people always shines through. From a community point of view, I am able to convey some of the good things from my community, and I know that others can do so as well. I have been double-vaccinated, as I suspect everyone present has been. The many victories that have happened behind the scenes should be celebrated.
The topic of the debate is immunology research into covid-19, and I thank the Library for its very helpful briefing. Page 3 gives a really good introduction to the subject:
“immunology has changed the face of modern medicine…From Edward Jenner’s pioneering work in the 18th Century that would ultimately lead to vaccination in its modern form (an innovation that has likely saved more lives than any other medical advance), to the many scientific breakthroughs in the 19th and 20th centuries that would lead to, amongst other things, safe organ transplantation, the identification of blood groups, and the now ubiquitous use of monoclonal antibodies throughout science and healthcare.”
Immunology has helped our great health service to move forward. I asked for this debate some time ago, and I want to put on the record our thanks to the immunology experts and scientists. I am going to mention a lot of people in this debate today, because there are a lot of people to thank; I apologise in advance if some people are not mentioned, but that is not because we have forgotten about them. I recognise that, singly and as a team, we all came together to make this happen.
I will then speak to some of the successes that immunology research has had during the pandemic in furthering our understanding of covid-19 and the effects that SARS-CoV-2 has on our immune systems, as well as developing the technologies and therapeutics that are currently allowing us to emerge from lockdown restrictions and return to normal life—this here is the normal life we had prior to covid-19 in Westminster Hall. As I progressed around Westminster Hall, the House of Commons and the House of Lords and Portcullis House, I noticed these wee circles on the carpet. I wondered what they were all about, but then I realised: that is where the wee “Keep two metres apart” signs were. They have all gone away.
Normality is returning for a number of reasons, and I know that the Government and the Minister are committed to returning to normality in every way we can. Yesterday in the House, I asked the Minister how we can better have an agreed covid vaccine strategy within the four regions where one size fits all, as I put it. It would be nice to see that, although I know that the restrictions differ; I know that Scotland is going to do something different, as the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Anum Qaisar-Javed) may mention shortly. Lots of things have been happening, but from a news and media point of view it would have been nice at least to have had the same strategy for everywhere across this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Over the past 18 months, immunology has had a disproportionately large effect in driving forward our understanding of the science of, and helping us to recover from, the covid-19 pandemic. Immunology has built our understanding of how the body responds to covid-19—and, crucially, has delivered us highly safe and effective vaccines. We all know that. I have had the vaccine, as have others: it does not give us the ultimate assurance, but it gives us a 96% or 98% assurance of being safe and secure, which I believe is our way out of the pandemic.
Immunology is the linchpin linking together many of the sciences that have been used in tackling the covid-19 pandemic, such as virology, respiratory science and epidemiology; for the latter, immunologists have been working with epidemiologists to help make their mathematical models more accurate. I chair the all-party parliamentary group on respiratory health. We have recently had an inquiry on this issue and have done a number of things relating to respiratory health. Through the work of my constituency office, I have become aware of so many people who have issues in relation to asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or other respiratory problems. I am aware of those issues, and I am interested in them.
We know that a multitude of different reactions of the immune system manifest themselves through the many different symptoms and severities of covid-19 that have been observed—from the acute disease right the way through to long covid, which more and more people are reporting they are suffering from post-infection. I have had a number of people contact me about long covid; I am not sure whether there is a real understanding of how long covid affects people, and why it affects some people and not others.
A lady in my constituency contacted me just the other day, looking for some advice about her job and where she stands. Legally, there may not have been the protection that she had hoped for, but I think the Government have set in process a benefit system whereby if a person has a health condition that prevents them from working, they can claim employment and support allowance, personal independence payment or universal credit. I was pointing her in that direction, but this lady had been perfectly healthy. She worked in a wee bakery just down the street from my office. I got to know her quite well. I had not seen her about as often, but I thought that that was maybe because we were working different shifts.
Perhaps in his response the Minister could give us some idea about how we can help those with long covid. There are a number of them out there—not just that lady, but others who have contacted me recently; we got them on to benefits and tried to help them through the system. However, what that lady really wants, and what they all want, is to return to work and to normality. It may be some time before that happens. The benefits system is in place at least to help them financially, but we need to do more so that they can deal with the issues themselves, now and in the future.
Significant patient benefit and public health improvement directly demonstrate the huge value of investing further in immunology research. The Library paper referred to the
“Important research questions that will take time to answer”.
Research and development are working towards having in place vaccines and responses to diseases as they happen. I will comment on that later. The important research questions that take time to answer are:
“What is the rate of asymptomatic spread, and how does this contribute to transmission? What proportion of infected individuals mount a protective immune response? How long is natural and vaccine immune protection likely to last? What immunological factors correlate with protection to SARS-CoV-2 by vaccines and how effective are vaccines at protecting older people? What is the role of immunogenetics in SARS-CoV-2 infection and what can this tell us about potential therapeutic targets?”
Those are all key questions for those involved in R&D, and they are clear. They help us to prepare for the future. In the research that I did—I want to refer to it later on—I found that R&D was actually working towards this vaccine even before the disease came about. When the Government announced the vaccine, there had already been a number of years of investigation and research and development into this particular subject matter.
Some of the questions that the UK Coronavirus Immunology Consortium were asking were as follows:
“How long does immunity from COVID-19 last? Why are some people’s immune systems better able to fight off the virus?”
That relates to those who can recover quickly and those who have long covid.
“Why do some people’s immune responses cause damage, especially to the lungs? How does the virus ‘hide’ from the immune system and how can this be tackled?”
Right across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, again, perhaps the Minister can give us his response to this question as well.
Ulster University in Northern Ireland was working in partnership with some of the larger pharmaceutical companies on vaccine research. How important we all believe those R&D partnerships between universities across the whole United Kingdom—including Ulster University in Northern Ireland, obviously—are in bringing about some of the vaccines that we have!
Vaccines, of course, are no doubt having the most effect on people’s day-to-day lives. Immunology has made other important contributions to the science of covid-19. That includes diagnosis, for example, through antigen testing; the screening of antibodies to determine whether people have had covid-19 previously; and prognosis and patient stratification, such as triaging patients and seeing who will benefit from early ventilation and therapeutics. Why is it, for instance, that, as I heard one of the experts on BBC news say this morning, someone can be free of the symptoms of the disease but unknowingly be a carrier of it, even though they are vaccinated? Again, there are questions to be asked.
Immunology research during covid-19 has been supported well by Government, funding agencies and institutions. Our Ministers and our Prime Minister made it a priority. That is why we are where we are today, to the envy of much of the world. Immunology, especially population-based studies of actual immune responses in real people with and without disease was already a real strength of UK research to start with, and we should be grateful for that. The population-based research is facilitated by standardised procedures for researchers to access patients and their samples across the UK through the NHS. Again, we are eternally thankful for all that. The National Institute for Health Research played a major role in bringing together academic researchers and clinical services during the pandemic, and has played a crucial role in ensuring that we learn as we go, in real time. I especially thank the NIHR for that contribution. Many others have contributed as well, but the NIHR did a fantastic job.
The rapid adaptation of our funding processes to ensure that the Government research funding flowed to collaborative groups of researchers who were well placed to deliver answers to crucial questions quickly was also a major strength. For example, UK-CIC, which I have mentioned, is another visionary group that strategised, planned and responded in a positive way. Its UK-wide study was launched to tackle some of the key questions about the immune system’s response to SARS-CoV-2 and help us control the covid-19 pandemic. It received some £6.5 million in funding over 12 months from UK Research and Innovation and NIHR; that is the largest immunology grant awarded for tackling the covid-19 pandemic. Critically and crucially, it also incorporated a large element of patient and public involvement, bringing laypeople and those who had covid-19 into the scientific process in a scheme of work run by the British Society for Immunology. UK-CIC was funded in a way almost unique to covid-19 research, to encourage collaborative team science, individually but also through teamwork, sharing ideas, coming together, working together, and partnering. Rather than research groups competing against each other, which could have happened, the consortium brought them together with a singular target, a singular goal, and a way of doing it better together.
In UK-CIC some 20 of the UK’s leading immunology research institutes, including Ulster University in Northern Ireland—again, team UK of GB and NI working together in a very positive way—are funded as a consortium and are focused on five themes: primary immunity, protective immunity, immunopathology, cross-reactive coronavirus immunity and immune evasion. Its successes and novel discoveries are numerous. We look at that collective and how 20 different groups came together and how they solved problems collectively. We are four regions of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but we can share the ideas, so we can have the ideas in Scotland in Northern Ireland, Wales or England, and vice versa.
UK-CIC has contributed to the development of covid-19 therapeutics through exploration of the role for interferon therapy and determining the effectiveness of dexamethasone. It has made a major contribution to vaccine development studies including through showing that an extended dosing schedule is more effective than, for instance, a three-week interval. It has shown that there is a stronger antibody response to mRNA vaccines such as Pfizer and that there are stronger cellular immune responses to vaccines such as AstraZeneca. Furthermore, it has curated the largest collection of covid-19 post-mortem tissue in the world, so the evidential base is significant and ready for further investigation. It has defined the four main sub-types of inflammation in covid-19 and opened up avenues for further investigation of therapeutics. It is not just about today; it is about tomorrow and that is what I love about where we are. We are already preparing for the next one. I know the Minister will respond to that because he knows vastly more about it than I do and will be able to explain and explore that for us. UK-CIC has found that our T cell immune responses are likely to overcome mutations in the virus and remain effective. This is an incredibly complex subject matter, and so important as we look to the future and whatever comes our way.
The UK Coronavirus Immunology Consortium model has proved highly effective, and should be strongly considered as a blueprint for future funding of research. Perhaps the Minister will give his thoughts on that. I believe that it is vastly important that we do that. A number of strengths of doing research that way were identified, including avoiding duplication of research, with complementarity built into the project design instead; the standardisation of protocols, to allow science to move forward more quickly; and the ability to carry out larger studies by using patient samples from multiple sites. Again, the teamwork and connectivity brought everyone together. That led to more robust findings being produced and more diverse patient cohorts, as well as regular engagement between groups in the consortium, helping to engender ambition and to foster a sense of scientific community, working better together.
Retaining that funding model will ensure that the infrastructure is already in place should another pandemic event occur. We hope that it does not, but we did not expect the last one; we have to be prepared for the next. That is what the debate is also about: to thank the Minister, our Government and others for our response and to ensure that we are equipped and ready for the future. That infrastructure would also tackle other societal and public health challenges, such as antimicrobial resistance, cancer immunotherapy, and ageing and dementia. In the debate on social care the other day in the House, many referred to dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s as diseases that are perhaps more prevalent in society now than in the past. I can vouch for that, as I seem to be dealing with more of those issues in my constituency. Again, these are complex matters, and it is about working better together to try to address them.
No debate on immunology research and covid-19 in the UK would be complete without talking about the world-leading work done by the University of Oxford team in developing the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. We are eternally grateful for all that they have done. It was not until 11 March 2020 that the World Health Organisation declared covid-19 to be a global pandemic, but the work that preceded the release of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine had begun years before. I referred to that earlier, and it is the truth: the Oxford team began its work in 2015. I do not know whether many people know that. I did not until I researched the issue.
That work was funded by the UK Vaccine Network, a partnership between the Department of Health and Social Care and UK Research and Innovation’s Medical Research Council and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, to find a vaccine for middle eastern respiratory syndrome, an illness caused by a different coronavirus. Not all the research was in place, but it was during this time that the team fine-tuned the adenovirus vaccine platform, and in 2018 the vaccine entered safety trials and was shown to cause no adverse responses while eliciting both cellular and antibody immune responses, and the trials suggested that two doses would be more effective than one. The lessons learned at that time could be initiated for our response to covid-19 when it started just last year.
The MERS virus has a spike protein on its surface similar to the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, which meant, along with the previous testing of the vaccine platform technology, that the Oxford team already had an adaptable vaccine that had been tested and proved to be safe in humans. People should be made more aware of that information when they say, “You’ve brought this in. You’ve vaccinated everybody. Where’s the trial?” Well, the research started in 2015 and the trials started in 2018, then were adapted to deal with this particular virus. We should be encouraged by what has taken place. The vaccine has been tested and proved to be safe in humans.
Once the Chinese investigators had shared the genomic sequence of SARS CoV 2, it could then be inserted into the adenovirus to produce the prototype covid-19 vaccine that entered into human trials in April 2020—about the time that covid-19 restrictions came into play. The ability to deliver such a vaccine at pace was a product of long-term funding through UKRI over more than a decade, which ensured there was an existing vaccine platform technology, alongside optimised manufacturing methods.
The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine development was also facilitated by a £2.6 million UKRI-NIHR rapid response grant in March 2020, just at the time we needed it. Again, our Government were in place to do that at the right time. That provided funding to conduct pre-clinical investigations and phase 1 and 2 trials, and to scale up production of the vaccine to 1 million doses by summer 2020. The researchers and all those involved were able not only to produce a cure but initiate production at the level that was needed. How grateful we are for all those superhuman efforts to bring out the vaccine to immunise the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and help third-world countries.
That is truly demonstrative of previous immunological research into infectious diseases speeding up our response to SARS-CoV-2. However, after the previous outbreaks, research into these viruses tapered off, which hampered our ability to respond to SARS-CoV-2 with as much information as we would have liked. That was unfortunate. The gaps in knowledge at the beginning of the pandemic led to some of the decisions that were made in public policy and, indeed, some mistakes that, perhaps with hindsight, could have been avoided. We have all made mistakes in life—I include myself in that, and I am sure everyone is the same—and we would change them, but we make decisions at the time that we make them.
We must not make the same mistakes again. Instead, we must continue to invest in SARS-CoV-2 and covid-19 research, immunological and otherwise, so that we are properly prepared should an event like this happen again. We should be ever thankful for where we are. Coronaviruses have particular pandemic potential, as they are able to replicate efficiently on entry to the human population and are thought by experts to be the biggest threat, so we need to get ready for the future. I know the Minister will give us some of his thoughts about how we are doing that so we are ahead of the game when it comes to responding to whatever the future may hold.
The covid-19 pandemic has also acutely illustrated that the importance of both global disease networks and global disease surveillance cannot be overstated. With the truncation or termination of many non-covid-19 immunological research projects that formed the basis of these networks and surveillance due to cuts to the official development assistance budget, it is through investing in covid-19 immunology research that we can build international collaboration, as has happened in the past, and use those relationships to ensure that we are more prepared for future infectious disease outbreaks. Perhaps the Minister can tell us a wee bit more about how we are working internationally. Again, we can do that to everyone’s advantage. We should not be claiming it for ourselves; we can do that with other countries, and do it better together.
Of course, there are still many questions surrounding covid-19 that remain unanswered, including major ones like what the longevity of vaccine-mediated immunity will be and why some people contract long covid and others do not. I refer again to the constituent I spoke about this week. Covid-19 is unlikely to disappear completely, so it is crucial that we invest in discovering the answers to those and other key questions.
If we revert to pre-pandemic-style grant funding for covid-19 research, we will lose the progress that we made on the R&D infrastructure and the good will of the research community, which is needed to tackle these challenges properly. I seek an assurance from the Minister that we will not revert to that, but we will move forward and give the commitment that the R&D sector clearly wants. We must ensure that the current levels of funding are continued. Small studies that look at small numbers of people are not robust enough to achieve statistically significant results that can inform patient care and policy. We need to ensure that the R&D success of the past is a policy and strategy for the future. We must continue to conduct studies at the same scale, with the involvement of hundreds of thousands of people. That is the success of the covid-19 vaccine, and that is the success we want for all other pandemics that come along, to ensure long-term immune monitoring that can be applied to real-world questions and situations.
There has been an immense investment in immunology and covid-19 research over the past 18 months, which has allowed the UK to achieve some truly impressive bench-to-bedside science, such as vaccines that have gone from the laboratory to people’s arms in record time. I know there has been lots of research into how that is done, and we can only be truly impressed by it.
There has also been great leadership from the Government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, and chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, in driving forward conditions that have led to the progress and discoveries made. The pandemic has illustrated the importance of the NHS. We all love the NHS and we know how important it is. There is not a debate where we do not revere what it has done for those it has helped to heal, save and make better, and for the comfort it gives people when they need it most. It is vital to ensure that is not forgotten in future, as it allows science to operate at a huge scale.
We owe a debt of gratitude to the scientists and researchers of many different disciplines, including immunology, for their work during the pandemic. The fruits of their labour can be seen everywhere from the vaccine roll-out to today’s better survival rates for covid-19 patients in hospital, for which we are thankful. It reminds us that the work going on in labs across the country has a tangible effect on everyday life in this country. It is the working together and the investigations and tests done in universities and pharmaceutical companies with the financial backing of our Government and the push from the vaccine Minister and his team. We must ensure in the post-pandemic future that UK R&D is properly funded and given the resources needed to continue having a positive effect for everyone in society.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dr Huq. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) who secured this important debate. As a relatively new Member, it is my pleasure to have made both my first hybrid Westminster Hall speech and now my first non-hybrid Westminster Hall speech in debates he has secured. While we differ on the constitution, I know the hon. Gentleman makes a valuable contribution to this House, although I have not yet worked out how he manages to be in three places at once. I gently remind him that Scotland is not a region; it is a nation.
I echo the hon. Gentleman in being grateful for the role of immunology and thanking all who are involved in the sector. Without them, this pandemic may have been very different. The pandemic has forced us in many ways to work collaboratively to overcome the challenges put in place by the virus. In our time of need, scientists from an array of disciplines have done exactly that, and have come together to share their expertise, forming our evidence-based approach to tackling the virus.
Specifically, immunology research has played a pivotal role in linking together many of the sciences that have been used to tackle the covid-19 pandemic, such as virology, respiratory science and epidemiology. Although immunology is most known for its role in the development of the vaccine, it also continues to play a crucial role in providing information that helps to form our ongoing public health response to covid-19. Working with partners across the UK and across the globe, Scotland is leading, enabling and delivering world-class covid-19 research, which is a key element of the Scottish Government’s overall response to the pandemic.
Immunologists have worked tremendously hard to ensure that public understanding of covid-19 is as up to date as possible, with University of Glasgow researchers the first in the world to genomically sequence the Kent variant of the virus. Such work by scientists, medical professionals, researchers and a host of others has developed our collective understanding of the virus, its causes and effects, the mitigation strategies, and the vaccine lifeline.
The Scottish Government emphasised research investment early on in the pandemic, which has contributed to global efforts to understand the effects of the virus, to sequence it and to work on vaccine manufacturing and development. As a result, the Scottish Government supported 55 rapid research projects in 15 Scottish universities and research institutions from April 2020, funding contributions to global efforts to combat the virus and its wider effects. Such research has allowed us to tackle the virus with, as I have said, an evidence-based approach.
Being able to deliver the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine at such a pace was the product of long-term funding provided by UK Research and Innovation over more than a decade. It was this long-term funding that ensured there was an existing vaccine platform technology, alongside optimised manufacturing methods, as the hon. Member for Strangford referred to. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine development was also facilitated by a £2.6-million UKRI rapid response grant in early 2020. It was this funding that allowed pre-clinical investigations and a phase 1/2 trial to be conducted, as well as the scaling up of the production of the vaccine to 1 million doses by the summer of 2020.
Although the field of immunology is currently most known for its development of vaccines, it is important to note that it plays just as significant a role in contributing to public health information. As we are currently witnessing across the UK, covid-19 is by no means going away any time soon.
In addition, we are yet to understand fully the extent to which it will impact our population in the long term. Approximately 1 million people in the UK have self-reported symptoms of long covid. Of those people, around two thirds have stated that the symptoms have adversely affected their day-to-day activities. The symptoms reported include fatigue, shortness of breath, muscle aches and difficulty concentrating.
The Scottish Government have invested over £400,000 to enable Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland to deliver a long covid support service, which complements the support being provided by NHS Scotland. Along with the Royal College of Occupational Therapists, the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy and the Queen’s Nursing Institute, CHSS recently published a long covid action plan, which calls on the Scottish Government to make a number of changes. Crucially, these changes include a fund to be set up for health boards to establish a local long covid service, although a figure has not yet been set; the removal of bureaucratic barriers in NHS Scotland; and improved data-sharing, so that patients can be spoken to more quickly. Additionally, the document calls for patient care plans to be developed and for medical staff to be trained on long covid, because, CHSS says, some medical staff do not actually recognise it as a real condition.
At First Minister’s questions last week, the First Minister stated publicly that she wanted to discuss the recommendations with the charity in detail, and will give the capacity fund serious consideration in budget discussions.
I am very impressed and pleased by Scotland’s long covid planning strategy, which the hon. Lady has outlined. However, it is not all about plans. For many families, it is about how they will survive financially—they all want to get better, but they are not sure if that will happen in the timescale they wish. Apart from the benefits system that we have in place, does the hon. Lady have any ideas as to how we could help them financially?
I do not know off the top of my head, so I will get back to the hon. Gentleman on that matter.
In light of the statistics and the current rates of covid-19, it is crucial that there is continued investment in immunology research, which will allow us to develop an ongoing public health strategy to minimise and manage the impact of the virus on our population. Thanks to the production of the vaccine, when compared to those who are unvaccinated, those who are double vaccinated are at less risk not only of catching the virus, but of an infection turning into long covid.
Furthermore, it has been found that two doses of the Pfizer or Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine are 96% and 92% effective against hospitalisation with the delta variant, respectively. While the delta variant is prevalent throughout the country, it is reassuring to know that because of the work of immunologists, our population is trying to live life as normally as possible. The vaccine produced by immunologists has both literally and figuratively provided us with a lifeline—without their work, our economy would remain at a standstill.
Despite the steps we have taken in the battle against covid-19, there is still so much we do not fully understand. By continuing to fund immunology research, population-based studies—a key strength of UK research—can continue to provide us with this knowledge. For example, the National Institute for Health Research has played a major role in bringing academic research together with clinical services during the pandemic, ensuring that we learn as we go. It is this continual production of real-time information about covid-19 that will allow us to overcome and stay ahead of the virus and its long-term impacts.
I therefore ask that the UK Government follow the lead of the Scottish Government’s actions and continue to invest in immunology research and ensure the necessary investment in England’s NHS. It is through further investment in this research that we will get the pandemic under control. In turn, this will ensure that the country is far better prepared for any future outbreaks of emerging diseases. Immunology research has undoubtedly played a pivotal role in our overcoming the pandemic, and it will continue to form the foundation of our public health response and our knowledge of the ever-changing landscape of the pandemic.
It is a pleasure to wind up for the Opposition with you in the Chair, Dr Huq. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this extremely important debate. I know he is hugely passionate about so many issues, and it has been wonderful to hear him set out exactly why this topic is so close to his heart.
So many heroes have emerged from this pandemic: our frontline NHS staff, shopworkers, carers, posties, delivery drivers—the list goes on and on. It is absolutely right that these people’s efforts are recognised, but today we have the opportunity to express our gratitude to a different group of people—a group that is more often found behind the scenes in labs and research facilities up and down the country. Their commitment and dedication to understanding and then eradicating deadly diseases has saved millions of lives over the last two centuries. Immunologists and all their colleagues in biomedical research deserve all the gratitude we can offer.
It is through immunological research that we can treat and prevent the spread of diseases. Although it can be difficult to remember a time when we were not consumed by information surrounding covid, it is important to remember how we got here so quickly. Without this research, we would not be able to develop vaccines or even understand basic principles in reducing infection rates. This work allows us to identify who is most at risk of certain diseases and informs both public health messages and interventions to limit outbreaks.
The work of immunology researchers and scientists led to an almost immediate understanding of this virus. We understood how to limit its spread and, ultimately, how to develop a vaccine to stop it. Considering that very little was known about the coronavirus before it began to spread ferociously around the world, this achievement is even more remarkable. Without this work and dedication, the loss of life worldwide would be far greater. For that, we already owe a huge debt.
It is only right to begin my contribution today by paying my respects to those who work in this field. In particular, I pay respect to the British Society for Immunology and the Royal College of Pathologists. I am sure colleagues will join me in doing so. Those institutions refused to be fazed by covid-19, and the work of their members has been pivotal in delivering a route out of the pandemic. We have a long and proud tradition in this country of pushing advancements in medicine, especially on immunisation. The work of UK scientists has led to vaccines being developed for numerous infectious diseases.
Edward Jenner, often referred to as the father of immunology, discovered the first ever smallpox vaccine in 1796. It had been theorised that exposure to cowpox would protect against infection with the more lethal smallpox. Jenner tested this theory and it was a resounding success. A tribute to Blossom, the cow whose cowpox was used as the first vaccine, can still be found on the wall of the St George’s medical school library, which is attached to the hospital where I work. From that achievement in 1796 to covid vaccines today, we should be proud of this legacy.
The scientific community has always fully endorsed collaboration and working across borders and cultures to foster innovation. Let us be clear: the unsung heroes are our scientists, who went to work day and night throughout the pandemic, even though they were putting their own lives at risk and were concerned for their own families. They are the reason we have a vaccine today—a vaccine that has saved so many lives. For them, we are truly grateful. By collaborating with researchers all over the world, UK scientists have played their part in preventing deaths from some of history’s deadliest diseases. These efforts have resulted in no less than 26 vaccine-preventable diseases, and are estimated to prevent over 2 million premature deaths globally every year.
I am proud to be part of the UK scientific community—as, I am sure, are you, Dr Huq. I am truly honoured to have met so many of the specialists who have been relentless in their struggles to get a handle on covid-19. It is imperative that the Government do all they can to support this work and to facilitate as much international collaboration as they can during the final stretch of covid-19 and long beyond. Despite all we have learned about the virus, there is still so much we do not fully understand: exactly how long immunity lasts following vaccination and whether immunity completely prevents individuals from passing the virus on, or simply prevents them from developing symptoms. Research into those questions is, of course, ongoing, and as greater numbers are vaccinated we should be in a better position to answer them.
With the ongoing threat of new variants emerging, it is vital that we understand their potential effect on immunity. Closely monitoring new variants and their impact on our immune system will help get us to a position whereby we can begin to control the virus and exit the pandemic. It is easy to assume that, now that we have a vaccine, the hard work is over and life will inevitably return to normal. While that is what we all strive for, we cannot allow complacency to creep in. By continuing to support the work of immunologists, pathologists and the wider scientific community, we will be able to face any new emerging challenges and react accordingly.
The UK is a global leader in immunology and infectious disease research, both in the academic environment and in our industrial capabilities. We need to build on those strengths and invest in our workforce, who are the lifeblood of the discipline, to ensure that excellence continues to be recognised at home and abroad. I would be grateful if the Minister could commit to this and outline what support the Government will provide for this highly skilled workforce.
Now is the time to encourage people to take up careers in this field. We need to attract high levels of talent from around the world, while training and developing our own staff and encouraging them to forge long and successful careers here. We must continue to break down the barriers in STEM to ensure that immunology has a representative workforce who can inspire future generations, regardless of their gender, ethnicity or class.
The response from the research community to covid-19 has been immense, but it has also highlighted the need to be better prepared for the next pandemic, whatever it may be and whenever it may come. Governments around the world recognise that and must never lose sight of it. Here in the UK, we cannot afford to take our eyes off the ball. Doing so would jeopardise the results of the sacrifices we have all had to make over the past 18 months, including those in our scientific community. I implore the Government to continue to support our world-leading biomedical science sectors long after covid becomes a distant memory. We were not as prepared as we could have been for the virus’s onslaught. We must learn from that and ensure that we are better prepared for the next threat, even if we do not yet know what it will be.
Thank you very much, Dr Huq. It is a pleasure to be here, in person, to serve under your chairship. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this debate, and of course the hon. Members for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) and for Airdrie and Shotts (Anum Qaisar-Javed).
The shadow Minister referred to Edward Jenner and Blossom, and of course we all owe a huge debt of gratitude to Dame Sarah Gilbert, who now has a Barbie from Mattel in her image. I hope that will encourage many young kids to take up science, as a number of us in this Chamber have done. As I am sure colleagues here know, I am a proud chemical engineer from University College London. I think it appropriate, on a day like this, to congratulate the behind-the-scenes group—as the shadow Minister referred to them—of incredible scientists, whose incredible work has allowed us to deal with this pandemic. I am sure the whole House would want to join me in that.
I also congratulate Sir Shankar Balasubramanian and Sir David Klenerman. They have just received the $3 million Breakthrough Prize, which is referred to as the “Oscars of science” for their work at Cambridge on next-generation genome sequencing. To bring that to life for the House, it took $3 billion and about 10 years to sequence the first human genome. Their work on next-generation genome sequencing now allows that same work to take an hour and about $1,000, which makes a real contribution to future discovery.
For those who do not know her, I would also encourage people to look at the work of Professor Katalin Karikó, who has also been awarded the Breakthrough Prize today. She is not from the United Kingdom, but has had to travel a long journey, from Hungary to the USA and the University of Pennsylvania. Her personal struggle and her work on mRNA allowed BioNTech and Moderna, using her patents, to develop those incredible vaccines.
By calling this debate, the hon. Member for Strangford has really provided us with an opportunity to discuss the world-leading contributions that UK researchers have made by increasing our ability to tackle this disease. Investment by the Government has assisted the science underpinning the development of many of the tools we need to harness to ultimately defeat this virus.
UK-based research has provided insights that are crucial to improving surveillance, patient care and management, and developing new diagnostics, therapies and vaccines. Identifying how the immune system responds to covid-19 is critical to understanding so many of the unknowns around this novel virus. For example, why does it make some people sick and not others? What constitutes effective immunity and how long might that immunity last?
The immune system is extremely complex. To make rapid and effective progress in our knowledge, a nationally co-ordinated approach was needed, as the hon. Member for Strangford referred to. That is why £6.5 million of funding has been provided from UK Research and Innovation and the National Institute for Health Research to the UK Coronavirus Immunology Consortium. The UK is world leading in the quality of its immunology research, and this innovative project has enabled us in Government to commission at pace the research needed to understand the immunology of covid-19, and as a result successfully deliver real benefits to patients and public health. The key themes identified by UK-CIC included the understanding of primary immunity, and describing the body’s immune response to covid-19 and how this might explain the different risks presented by the virus to individuals. In other words, why do some get sicker than others?
What constitutes protective immunity? Identifying how an effective immune response can be generated and how it can be maintained to prevent re-infection was essential for the development of effective vaccines and understanding why some people remain vulnerable even after vaccination. Unpicking the mechanism of the disease caused by immunopathology—how the body’s own immune response to the virus can cause damage to tissues and organs, and how that can be stopped—is essential knowledge for the development of effective treatments, along with identifying immune vaccine evasion and how the virus might evade the body’s protective immune response through natural infection or vaccination, leaving people vulnerable to re-infection.
I want to highlight some further research that we have commissioned and funded in the field of diagnostics. The COVID-19 National DiagnOstic Research and Evaluation Platform—the CONDOR study—is accelerating how quickly promising diagnostics make it out of the lab and into real-world use. This will support the diagnosis of infection and the management of patients with suspected covid-19, which is important for the subsequent waves of infection in the post-pandemic setting.
On vaccine development and deployment, we all know the benefits that both doses of the vaccine can bring to many people. Indeed, colleagues have mentioned that today. Data from Public Health England suggests that two doses of the covid vaccine offer protection against hospitalisation of around 96%. The United Kingdom has been at the forefront of vaccine development, helped by the investment that we have made in this vital research. The ChAdOx1 vaccine platform—already shown to be safe and effective through a previously funded phase 1 trial against the middle east respiratory syndrome, or MERS, which the hon. Member for Strangford rightly referred to in his speech—was quickly adapted to develop a vaccine candidate against covid-19 and launched human trials in April 2020.
In parallel, project funding was also provided to investigate and develop more efficient vaccine manufacturing processes, enabling vaccines to be made more rapidly. However, the development of an effective vaccine is just the first step, and I commend the efforts of the NHS in the world-class roll-out of the vaccine programme among adults and young people across our four nations. Our efforts in understanding why some people do not develop a protective response even after receiving two doses of the vaccine are an important next step in our research portfolio, hence the Government have commissioned important studies to understand vaccine responses among the most vulnerable in our society.
However, despite the success of the current vaccination campaign, we are doing more by investing in research that will inform us about how to deliver vaccinations in the future and to help us to understand why some immunosuppressed people are not fully protected. I regularly meet charities that support clinically extremely vulnerable patients, and I share their concerns about the risks to this group from contracting covid-19.
There is a breadth of research activity being funded in order to look at vaccine response in immunocompromised individuals. The OCTAVE—observational cohort trial T cells antibodies and vaccine efficacy in SARS-CoV-2—study is examining covid-19 vaccine responses in clinically at-risk groups, including patients with certain immunosuppressed conditions. Building on the work that we did with the OCTAVE trial, we are funding OCTAVE DUO, which is a new clinical trial to determine whether a third dose of a vaccine will improve the immune response in people who have weakened immune systems. Additionally, the UKRI-funded research to be commissioned following the recent research on vaccine immune failure will investigate the strength and durability of the immune response, which I know colleagues are interested in understanding better in a wide range of people, including those with conditions that result in a weakened immune system, such as HIV.
The development of novel treatments for covid-19 has been made possible by the work and funding that we have provided for immunology research. As referred to by a number of hon. Members, that includes the UKRI and NIHR-funded projects looking at the immune response generated during infection with covid-19, which revealed that the body produces harmful immune responses that attack its own tissues and organs. That leads to severe disease and may underlie some forms of long covid, but further research is needed to better understand this. Research of this type has helped the development of new and effective treatment options, including the recently approved novel monoclonal antibody treatment Ronapreve. This novel treatment development was also supported by a UKRI and NIHR-funded trial.
I will briefly turn to some of the questions that hon. Members asked. The hon. Member for Strangford asked about long covid, which can have very serious and debilitating long-term effects for thousands of people across the UK. It can make daily life extremely challenging. We are providing significant funding for several studies in order to better understand the long covid problem, improve diagnosis and find new treatments. In July, the Department provided just shy of £20 million—I think it was £19.6 million—of funding towards an extensive programme of 15 new research studies, which will allow researchers across the UK to draw together their expertise from analysing long covid among people suffering long-term effects and the health and care professionals supporting them. The projects will better understand the condition and how to identify it, evaluate the effectiveness of different care services on people with long covid, identify effective treatments, such as drugs and rehabilitation, to treat people suffering from long covid, and improve home monitoring, which is a key issue.
I am very encouraged by that. Is it the intention of the Minister’s Department to share the results of those studies with all the different regions of the United Kingdom, so that we can all benefit? As health matters are devolved, the evidential base and final conclusion of the studies will be very important for us all.
I completely share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about that issue, and it is important that we look at it very seriously. He also asked whether we have enough supply of monoclonal antibody treatments. I can tell him that the regulatory approval and clinical policy will provide information on which patients could benefit from the treatments and how much supply is needed. We are working with the companies to ensure that we have a supply of those products in the coming months. Which patients are likely to have access to those treatments? Again, the NHS England antibody expert group is currently designing clinical guidance on how the NHS should use the treatments, which includes defining and identifying the eligible patient cohorts that are likely to benefit following a positive covid test.
In terms of deploying the treatments, part of the work of the NHS England expert group is on the clinical guidance on identifying potential deployment in hospital and possible pathways, especially through clinics and at-home services following a positive test. The hon. Gentleman also asked what research is looking at long-term immune response in individuals who are vaccinated. The Department is funding a number of important studies into immune response: the SARS-CoV-2 immunity and reinfection evaluation, or SIREN, study in healthcare workers; the Vivaldi study in care home residents and workers; and the coronavirus infection survey led by the Office for National Statistics, with repeat household visits looking at who has antibodies to covid from either vaccination or previous infection.
The hon. Gentleman asked about vaccine manufacturing in the longer term. I can tell him that in 2018, UKRI announced £66 million for the UK’s first dedicated vaccine manufacturing and innovation centre, VMIC. The goal was to promote, develop and accelerate the growth of the UK vaccine industry. When the pandemic began, UKRI reacted at unparalleled scale and speed to ensure that all investments were ready and able to respond to the challenge, and that they were plugged in to the UK’s wider vaccine, life science and pharmaceutical ecosystem. An additional £131 million was made available as an investment in, I think, May 2020, bringing the total for VMIC to just shy of £200 million, at £196 million. VMIC will be able to deliver about 200 million doses of vaccine, of any technology, at scale per annum, so it is a big investment.
The hon. Gentleman also asked what the Government are doing to support the development, production and procurement of vaccines for the future. As well as VMIC, we are planning for all scenarios in the fight against covid and its variants. Some of the recent analysis supports our understanding that both the Pfizer BioNTech and AstraZeneca vaccines currently being deployed in the UK appear to work well against the current dominant variants of covid, and continuing to administer those vaccines at scale remains our key to bringing the virus under control.
We are also assessing our existing portfolio against current variants, working closely with vaccine manufacturers and Public Health England, to understand the efficacy of our portfolio. We think we are in a good place vis-à-vis the interim advice from JCVI on the booster campaign, which we hope to begin later this month.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked whether there was any existing research that had helped to accelerate the development of vaccines. He quite rightly cited the work of the Oxford team, but even before the covid-19 pandemic, they were already doing that research because of funding from UKRI—and thank goodness for that.
To conclude, I fully recognise the tremendous impact that the pandemic has had on so many people. Commissioning high-quality immunology research is an essential part of our armoury in fighting this virus. We will continue to implement research findings and, at the same time, commission and fund new projects that will deepen our understanding of the disease and identify further defences that will keep us safe. Throughout this pandemic, the Government have been there to support and invest in research. As we shift our focus from the initial impact of the pandemic, we intend to continue to provide funding and support for covid-19 research, underlining precisely why the UK has long been, and continues to be, a great place for world-leading research and researchers.
I thank everyone for their contributions, starting with the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Anum Qaisar-Javed). She spoke about devolved matters, as you said Dr Huq, but it is good to share strategies across the whole of the United Kingdom, and I look forward to doing so.
The hon. Lady referred to 83 venues across the whole of Scotland that are doing research to find and perfect a strategy. We can all take an interest in and learn lessons from that.
I thank the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan), for her hard work during the pandemic. She has been on the frontline, and I think we all want to thank her personally for that. I do not think I have had the opportunity to, so I thank her on behalf of a great many patients who are indebted to her and to others for that work.
The shadow Minister also referred to the advances in medication and the cross-border culture of countries working internationally to find a cure, control the virus and exit the pandemic, with the UK as a global leader. Those words are very true and represent the consensus of opinion, as the debate has made clear.
I thank the Minister. Although I said that at the beginning and have just said it again, it does not take away from the quality of our gratitude to the Minister for the work that he does. He referred to all those working in the back room. We all know that there is a team behind the Minister who make it work, and I thank them, because they are the strength behind how it works.
The Minister referred to a better understanding of the immune system and how it works for some and does not work for others. One crux of the matter is about how we can find out why. If we do excellent research on that, we can find a cure. There are 15 new research studies, with significant amounts of money set aside. Many would have tried to accumulate that money, but it has been massive.
We are in a better place today because of our Government and the Minister. This debate has brought everyone together to say the same thing. I thank everyone for their participation and contributions, particularly the Minister.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the role of immunology research in responding to the covid-19 outbreak.
Definition of Islamophobia
[Mrs Sheryll Murray in the Chair]
Before we begin, can I encourage Members to wear masks when they are not speaking? This is in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room. Members should send their speaking notes by email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Similarly, officials in the Gallery should communicate electronically with Ministers.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the definition of Islamophobia.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for permitting the debate. I introduce the debate as one of the co-chairs of the all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims. It is a privilege to chair that APPG, and something that I take very seriously indeed. The year before I became a Member of Parliament in 2019, the APPG proposed a definition of Islamophobia. The group undertook widespread consultation with parliamentarians, experts, lawyers, community activists and victim-led organisations so that they could propose a working definition. This was a sincere attempt to give meaning to the word and the nature of what we call Islamophobia, and that definition has since been adopted by hundreds of different organisations and bodies. It was, and remains, a valuable piece of work.
During the 2019 Peterborough by-election, in which I came third, I canvassed a gentleman called Amir Suleman. He is, and was, a presenter on a local radio station, Salaam Radio, and he asked me what I thought about the APPG definition of Islamophobia and whether it should be adopted by the Government. Embarrassingly, I had very little to say to him, but I promised that if I were elected, I would become active on the issue. A general election and several tough interviews on Salaam Radio later, I have kept my promise, and Amir is my friend and a tremendous source of advice. I have a large Muslim population in my city and in my constituency, and I see day in, day out, the fantastic contribution Muslims make to life in Peterborough and throughout the whole of the UK.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this this debate. I want to put on record that I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. We speak out for those with Christian beliefs, those with other beliefs, and those with no beliefs. I support the campaign that the hon. Gentleman is describing; I think that the Government should respond to it in a very positive way and that the same freedom should be there for everyone of every faith in the United Kingdom, not just in word but in deed.
I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for that contribution. He will know as well as I do that discrimination against any faith can have a huge detrimental impact on the outcomes of people who are of that faith, so championing this cause and pushing back against discrimination and hatred against Muslims—my friends, my neighbours, my city—seems like the most natural thing for me to do. It is something positive I can do as the Member of Parliament for Peterborough, because Peterborough would not be Peterborough without the contribution of its Muslim residents.
Back in 2013, a report published to coincide with the ninth World Islamic Economic Forum in London stated that the nearly 2.8 million Muslims in the UK contribute over £31 billion to its economy, and wield a spending power of £20.5 billion. I see that economic input all the time in my constituency, with its hundreds of Muslim-owned businesses: these are entrepreneurial and charitable people, wealth and job creators, making my city more prosperous. Successful British Muslim entrepreneurs not only contribute to the prosperity of Peterborough and our country, but contribute to the fabric of British society and act as role models for us all.
Muslims contribute to the social fabric of my city. In Peterborough, as in other places, we have Muslim doctors, professors, lawyers, journalists, teachers, academics, pharmacists, care staff, charity workers, those who work in local Government and, of course, thousands working across the private sector. They contribute to our politics, with Muslim councillors in Peterborough representing all three major parties. In the Conservative-led administration, two Muslim councillors serve in the cabinet and the mayor last year was a Muslim Conservative councillor. From the Labour party, we have some of the longest-serving and respected councillors in our city. In the Conservative party, we have scores of activists, members and the only local branch, I believe, of the Conservative Muslim Forum. Considering the recent Singh report, I think we are one of the flagship Conservative associations in the country for engaging with the Muslim community and Muslim members of my party.
The APPG published another report in 2021, which demonstrated the role Muslims have played in fighting covid-19. Again, Peterborough is a fantastic example. Muslim institutions in my city, both charities and Islamic institutions, have shown us what being in this together really means. Those organisations and community activists, such as Zillur Hussain, who was awarded an MBE for his community efforts, have had me handing out face masks on busy streets, delivering food and hot meals to those who were shielding, to rough sleepers and the vulnerable, and promoting businesses like car washes offering free services. I have been photographed scores of times across my city with Muslim businesses and Muslims doing good things for everybody in our city. They have brought me, as their MP, into their hearts and homes. During covid-19, they showed the best of all of us.
It would take too much time for me to name all the Muslim businesses in Peterborough and what they have done during covid-19, but I listed 30 or so in a previous Westminster Hall debate. They know who they are, and I thank them from the very bottom of my heart. I know that this was replicated across the country, but despite that amazing contribution and those efforts, Islamophobia remains a social evil that has a devastating impact on British Muslims and on wider society. It is not just British Muslims who are impacted by Islamophobia, but British society at large, to the detriment of social harmony and inclusion.
In September 2017 the Runnymede Trust published a report titled “Racial prejudice in Britain today”. The report found that one in four Britons—26%—admitted to being racially prejudiced. Given that this admission is one that individuals would not readily make, the figure may be an underestimation of the actual number. A poll carried out by Savanta ComRes in 2018 found that 58% agreed with the statement:
“Islamophobia is a real problem in today’s society.”
That is a good thing. Almost one in two agreed with the statement:
“Prejudice against Islam makes it difficult to be a Muslim in this country.”
That is shocking. A further YouGov poll from 2018 shows that around one in four Britons believes that Islam is compatible with the values of British society. Alarmingly, around one in two believe that there is a fundamental clash between the two.
Despite the levels of prejudice evidenced in the national surveys, British Muslims continue to rise to high levels of British society, experiencing loyalty, belonging and social interaction with their fellow citizens. Some 93% of Muslims say they feel they belong to Britain, with more than half saying they felt this very strongly. The APPG report on Islamophobia clearly evidences discriminatory outcomes faced by Muslims in employment, housing, education, the criminal justice system, social and public life and political or media discourse. It contains a number of incidents widely reported in the press in order to demonstrate the breadth of Islamophobia in society. I am not going to name them all, because some of them, quite honestly, are too shocking to describe in a calm and respectful manner.
One incident really did catch my eye. An investigation conducted by The Sun in January 2018 revealed that the country’s top companies that provide car insurance would give far lower quotes to drivers with typical English-sounding names, such as John Smith, and far higher quotes to drivers with typical Muslim-sounding names, such as Mohammed Ali. This form of Islamophobia manifests itself in a subtler way than, say, an act of violence. This is institutionalised Islamophobia, and it impacts the lives of Muslims and leads to unequal outcomes. To make much greater progress in reversing these discriminatory outcomes, we must begin from the point of an agreed definition.
In response to the APPG’s report, in May 2019, the then Communities Secretary said that Ministers would appoint two expert advisers to work on a different definition of Islamophobia.
“To get a firmer grip on the nature of this bigotry and division we agree there needs to be a formal definition of Islamophobia to help strengthen our efforts.”
They pledged that the Government would develop an effective definition of Islamophobia that commands wide-spread support. Following this announcement, in July 2019, the first appointment was made. Imam Qari Asim, deputy chair of the anti-Muslim hatred working group, was appointed to lead the process for establishing a definition of Islamophobia. There has been no second appointment. Imam Qari Asim was appointed for his experience working with a broad range of communities to tackle Islamophobia, including in his role as deputy chair of the cross-Government working group to tackle anti-Muslim hatred. I have spoken to him and he is keen to begin this work. Muslim communities up and down the country are waiting; they are expecting something—they were promised something. This cannot wait. In the absence of any action, the APPG definition has already been adopted by scores of councils, and the Scottish and Welsh Governments are also now considering this.
When I appeared on Salaam Radio, shortly after my election, the first question I was asked was not about the economy, the NHS or foreign affairs, but rather about when the Government were going to complete this work. I shall be on again soon; please, let me tell them that we have, at least, started this work. My message is clear: quickly appoint a second adviser, or tell Imam Qari Asim to begin his work. I shall work with him, and with the working group to tackle anti-Muslim hatred.
I know I speak for other APPG officers and Members when I say that frustration is building. A definition of Islamophobia has the potential to be a tremendous force for good, and it is brilliant that the Government recognise that. It is the first step in a country-wide effort to stamp out this evil and improve outcomes for millions of people. I cannot stand idly by and allow the children, and grandchildren, of my constituents to face the same discrimination and racism that their parents and grandparents faced during their lives. Islamophobia not only impacts lives and outcomes, it holds us back as a country. If Muslim men and women are prevented from being all that they can be, this country will never fulfil its potential. Please, Minister, let’s begin this work.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the chair, Mrs Murray. I would like to begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) and the hon. Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) on securing this important debate.
Before I was elected, I was nervous about being a Muslim woman in the public eye. Growing up, I had seen the abuse that prominent British Muslims were subject to—I knew I would not be in for an easy ride. Today, I would like to say that I was wrong to be worried. When young Muslim girls ask me what it is like, I would like to say that there is nothing to worry about, that they would face the same challenges as their non-Muslim friends and colleagues. However, in truth, I cannot say that, because in my short time in Parliament, that is not my experience.
Let me read out a few examples. One person wrote to me to say, and I quote, “Sultana, you and your Muslim mob are a real danger to humanity.” Another wrote and said that I was a “cancer” everywhere I go, and soon, they said, “Europe will vomit you out.” A third called me a “terrorist sympathiser” and “scum of the earth”—and that is sanitising their unparliamentary language.
I have discovered that to be a Muslim woman, to be outspoken and to be left-wing is to be subject to this barrage of racism and hate. It is to be treated by some as if I were an enemy of the country that I was born in—as if I don’t belong. It was summed up by these words, in a hand-written letter, “If you can’t stand the racism, perhaps you would be happier going back to your country of origin—foreigner.” It is worse when I speak up for migrants’ rights, speak in support of the Palestinian people, or criticise Tony Blair for the war in Afghanistan. One abusive letter said, and I quote, “Our cities are full of Muslims. Send them to Pakistan.” Another suggested that I must support the Taliban—all because I am Muslim and against endless war.
This Islamophobia does not come from a vacuum. It is not natural or engrained; it is taught from the very top. These fires are fanned by people in positions of power and privilege. When a far-right online account targeted me with racist abuse, suggesting that Muslims were an invading army, a Conservative MP replied, not by calling it out for its racism, but by insulting me instead. When our England football stars were subjected to vile racism, in the Chamber I highlighted that the Prime Minister had fanned those flames by ridiculing Muslims and black people. At the Dispatch Box, the Minister told me to watch my tone.
Although none of that is nice, the worst effects of Islamophobia and racism are not just abusive language, but policies and political decisions. This Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of 9/11. That horrific act of mass murder cast a long shadow. The war on terror, launched by George Bush and Tony Blair in its wake, set a narrative that too many readily embraced. Muslims, wherever we are, were portrayed as a security threat in need of discipline and suppression. Abroad, that was the background to disastrous wars in the middle east. False links were drawn between Iraq and the 9/11 attacks, providing false legitimacy to a war that had more to do with oil than the safety of British citizens.
At home, it meant the erosion of the civil liberties of all and the targeting of Muslims in particular, with policies such as the Prevent programme, which countless studies and human rights groups have demonstrated discriminates against Muslims, from young girls being referred to the programme simply for choosing to wear a hijab to a Muslim teen being questioned by anti-terrorism officers for wearing a “Free Palestine” badge. I knew about that at university, so I, too, feared speaking out in class. I held back where I might otherwise have criticised Blair and Bush for illegal wars.
Growing up, I might have hoped that things would be better, but if anything they have got worse. Today, our Prime Minister mocks Muslims as “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”. Far from scrapping Prevent, earlier this year his Government announced that a review of the programme would be led by William Shawcross, a man who once said:
“Europe and Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future.”
That appointment led dozens of human rights organisations, including the likes of Amnesty International and Liberty, to boycott the review, saying that it was just there to rubber-stamp the discriminatory programme.
Closer to home, things are not good either. My party has seemingly welcomed back a man who said that Muslims
“see the world differently from the rest of us”,
and that we are a “nation within a nation”. It has been silent after a Muslim colleague was cleared following vexatious claims and endured 18 months of horrendous Islamophobia. In a recent by-election, it supposedly had a senior source pit Muslims against Jews, demonising whole communities.
I have always known what it is like to face racism, and through my political life I have come to understand this bigotry better—to see it in its different forms and to recognise the need to confront and challenge it wherever it is found. Islamophobia is very real in Britain today. It is something that I know too well, but it cannot be defeated in isolation. The people spreading this hate target not just Muslims but black people, Jewish people, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, migrants and refugees. There is safety in solidarity, and it is only through uniting our struggles that we will defeat racism.
I begin by referring to my unremunerated interest as advisory board chairman of Conservatives Against Racism for Equality.
I am grateful for the opportunity to follow the hon. Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana), who made a very moving speech. I am very sorry indeed that she has been treated so very disgracefully. There can be no place at all in our society for the way she has been treated. We can all see how she has been affected by it, and I do not mind admitting that I am affected by watching her report what she has experienced. It is just a disgrace, and absolutely every one of us has an obligation and a duty to stand against such intolerance and hatred in our society. I certainly will do everything I can to stand with her, despite our occasional differences, to make sure she is secure and safe in her identity and valued for it. For what it is worth, I often agree with her anti-war views, too—even as a former member of the armed forces—but that is for another debate on another day.
I am very proud to represent Wycombe. According to the last census, about one in six of my constituents are British Muslims. Some of my very best friends and supporters in Wycombe are British Muslims. I am very proud to have their support, to knock on doors with them, to go to mosque with them, to have meals together and to share and celebrate their faith at all appropriate moments. They are people who have very often taught me even about my own Christian faith.
We have a wide and rich variety of institutions in Wycombe. Let this be understood: in a Conservative, home counties seat, our largest religious institution is the Wycombe Islamic Mission and Mosque Trust, which runs a number of mosques across the constituency. We have the Wycombe Islamic Society, the Imam Ali Islamic Centre, the Karima Foundation, which educates young people, Seerah Today and Jamia Rehmania. We have many imams, people whom I regard as the most godly and dignified people, capable of teaching us all how we should relate to one another in community. We have the Council for Christian Muslim Relations, which has worked extremely hard over many years to make sure that our churches and mosques come together and share values, friendship and fellowship across a broad range of issues. The council helps us, crucially, to listen to one another when things are difficult, when there is a matter of international relations or security and so on. The Wycombe Muslim Communication Forum is always keen to give us its views, and I am always grateful for them.
This is the crucial point: if we are willing to listen to one another in good faith, we can make progress. That is what has happened in Wycombe over many years. I am extremely proud of the level of integration and the very flourishing relations that we have. They are the products of a great deal of effort. I want to make something very clear. We have moved far beyond what one might call tolerance, where one agrees to disagree and to go separate ways. We have moved into deep integration and friendship, and that is something of which I am very proud.
There is, however, something that we cannot tolerate in our society: the kind of anti-Muslim hatred that the hon. Member for Coventry South has so powerfully described today. That is why I need to say the following to my hon. Friend the Minister. As a Conservative Government, we have been in power for 11 years, and we will go into the next election having been in power for 14 years. One in six of my electors are British Muslims, and thousands of British Muslims voted for me. That is why I am here. I am quite sure that, if I lost the Muslim vote in Wycombe, I would lose the seat—and I can assure him that people tried extremely hard to dislodge me in that way. Minister, we have to represent, value and respect the votes of those thousands of people in Wycombe, in Peterborough and elsewhere who have put their faith and trust in Conservative representatives. To do that, we really must define anti-Muslim hatred and Islamophobia. We must have a working definition, one that we can be proud of, that is not susceptible to exploitation for political purposes and that also—it has to be said—respects the equal worth of Muslims.
Around the world there are conflicts based, I am afraid, on religious grounds. Like Christians, Muslims around the world are persecuted for their faith. I think of the Rohingya; I think about Xinjiang. And it has to be said that Israel-Palestine is very often seen through a prism of faith. I just say in passing that we must not forget the plight of Muslims in Gaza and on the west bank as we move between periods of conflict.
Something that we can do that would be really meaningful, particularly for young people in constituencies such as mine, is to say, “We not only value you; we respect you. We respect the dignity of your identity in Islam, and we are going to define what it means for people to express Islamophobia. We are going to say, very loudly and clearly, that we absolutely will not tolerate that form of prejudice and hatred.”
I have probably spoken for long enough. I will finish where I began, by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Coventry South. I know she is not a huge fan of Conservatives, but wherever we have disagreed I would have thought that every Member of this House would agree that every person should be secure in their identity. Islam is one of the world’s great faiths and no Member of Parliament should suffer anything approaching what she has suffered. I, for one, am extremely grateful to her for speaking as she has done today. I am very humbled by it. And I am very sorry, once again, that she has ever suffered anything like that.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I echo the words of the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker). This debate is much richer for the contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana). In our words, may Allah make it easy for you.
In the main Chamber right now, there is the debate on the legacy of Jo Cox. My hon. Friend mentioned what happened in Batley and the divisive attitudes from different quarters, particularly with regard to Islamophobia. I and I am sure many others wanted to attend that debate—it is a shame that we cannot—but let us in Westminster Hall not forget the words of Jo Cox, that we
“have far more in common than that which divides us.”—[Official Report, 3 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 675.]
We are here today because this Government have failed British Muslims. Prior to 2018, the Government disregarded the need for a definitive definition of Islamophobia altogether. Having come to their senses in May 2019, the Government were happy to accept a definition—just not the one that the Muslim community supported. Instead, the Government proposed to appoint two independent advisers on Islamophobia to go in search of their own definition, and 845 days later we have only one nominal Islamophobia adviser and no definition. It is clear that this is not a matter of the Government not trying; it is a matter of the Government not caring.
Time and again, I have raised the fact that if it is absolutely okay for women to understand and define patriarchy and feminism, for Jewish people to define antisemitism, for people of colour to define racism and for LGBTQ+ communities to define homophobia, why will this Government not adopt a definition of Islamophobia rooted in the experience of British Muslim communities? In total, 75 academics and over 750 Muslim organisations and institutions have endorsed that definition, from the Muslim Council of Britain to British Muslims for Secular Democracy, including organisations representing every single sect of Islam.
In my adult life, I have never seen an issue in the Muslim community receive such widespread formal support as this definition has. In rejecting that definition, are the Government really telling me, this Chamber and the House that their proposed definition will also garner the support of Muslim communities? The Labour party has adopted the APPG definition and we have also written to Labour councils to follow suit by adopting it on a local level. The Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National party, the Greens and even the Scottish Conservatives have adopted the definition, and yet this Government feel that they can silence Muslim communities by rejecting the definition that those communities support.
The last time that there was a debate on this issue in the main Chamber, the Government’s concerns about the APPG’s definition of Islamophobia centred on the opinions expressed in a letter to Downing Street by police chiefs, which was leaked, insinuating that it would hinder UK counter-terrorism efforts. Yet on further investigation, both police chiefs—Martin Hewitt and Neil Basu—concluded that the definition does not in any way affect counter-terrorism efforts. It was this ludicrous claim about the definition that the former Member for Beaconsfield and former Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, described as “total and unadulterated rubbish”.
Additionally, it has been repeatedly noted by the APPG and experts that the working definition of Islamophobia being proposed is a non-legally binding definition and therefore presents no challenge to statute, which takes legal precedent, and therefore it does not impede on free speech, as the Government claim. The APPG definition of Islamophobia is a working definition, similar to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism.
In fact, the APPG definition of Islamophobia is built on the IHRA framework; every single example used by the APPG definition comes from the IHRA definition of antisemitism. If one definition does not impede free speech, why do the Government think that another definition, which is built on the very same framework, does so? If the APPG’s definition does contravene the Equality Act 2010, as the Government have previously suggested, why do they not publish the legal advice they have taken on holding such positions?
The fact is that the Government maintain their silence as hate crimes targeted at Muslims exceed 50%. They turn a blind eye to the qualified, educated Muslim women denied jobs. They benefit from the Muslim contribution to the pandemic response—need I remind the Government that more than 50% of doctors’ fatalities from covid have been Muslims?—yet ignore the Islamophobia that 81% of medical professionals face. They allow social media to perpetuate narratives of terrorism around Muslims, while failing to call out the one in three articles that misrepresent and generalise Muslims. They delay a definition that is both timely and imperative; a 2019 YouGov poll found that 45% of British people saw a “fundamental clash” between Islam and the values of British society, while 73% of complaints in the Government’s own party relate to Islamophobia.
This is not a matter of a Government’s not trying, but of a Government’s not caring. If the everyday Islamophobia faced by British Muslims is not enough to shake this Government into action—if the daughter of the Muslim Scottish Health Secretary being denied a nursery place because of a Muslim-sounding name and a young Sikh boy wearing a turban being called “Taliban” and racially attacked for being perceived as a Muslim are not enough—then the terror attacks that have taken place against Muslim communities should wake them up.
Mohammed Saleem, Mushin Ahmed and Makram Ali are the three grandfathers who have already been murdered in Islamophobic terror attacks across the UK. Across the world, we have witnessed 51 Muslims murdered by a far-right terrorist in Christchurch, New Zealand, and only this June we witnessed a terror attack that led to three generations of a single family being murdered in Ontario, Canada.
It has been a decade since Baroness Warsi, the former Conservative party chair, said that Islamophobia had
“passed the dinner table test”.
We have seen not only a year-on-year increase in Islamophobic sentiments online, in the media and across society, but a terrifying rise in attacks on Muslim communities.
When I say that all the evidence points to the Government not caring, I am not saying it merely as an Opposition Member, but because if, God forbid, there is another deadly terror attack on Muslims in the UK, this Government’s inaction, negligence and often silent condoning of Islamophobia will be partly responsible. When they deny Muslim communities even a simple definition of Islamophobia and halt the work of the Government’s own anti-Muslim hatred working group, it is that serious.
If the Minister disagrees, I am happy to let him intervene to tell the House the last time the Government’s anti-Muslim hatred working group actually met. Who are the two independent Islamophobia advisers? Has one of the advisers the Government appointed even started his role, two years on from his appointment? The answer is no—just as I thought.
The reality is that Islamophobia is widespread. A report by the Centre for Media Monitoring, analysing media output over a three-month period in the fourth quarter of 2018, comprising analysis of more than 10,000 published articles and broadcast clips, found that 59% of all articles associated Muslims with negative behaviour, and 37% of articles in right-leaning and religious publications were categorised with the most negative rating of “very biased”. More than a third of all articles misrepresented or generalised about Muslims, and terrorism was the most common theme.
Recent research by Professor Imran Awan and Dr Irene Zempi found that, be they one-off events or a series of repeated and targeted offending, Islamophobic hate crimes not only affect the victim, but send reverberations through communities as they reinforce established patterns of bias, prejudice and discrimination. In the British context, Islam and Muslims have increasingly been seen as culturally dangerous and threatening to the British way of life. Muslims have been labelled both “deviant” and “evil”.
We know, and we witnessed through the height of the pandemic, how untrue those sentiments are. When the nation needed communities to come together, to serve, to unite and to protect our nation, British Muslims played a leading role. Sadly, however, far-right extremist and Islamophobic stereotypes peddle a narrative that can lead to worrying consequences for Muslim communities.
Adopting a definition is only the first step. Preventing, tackling and challenging Islamophobia is a debate that must still take place. Nobody—not I, nor the British Muslims here today or in my constituency—is asking for special treatment from this Government. All we are asking is simply that the Government accept the definition, so that we can help people and better understand Islamophobia. We need to put out a political statement that Islamophobia, in all its forms, is unacceptable and that attacks on Muslims must stop. That is all we asking for—literally, it is just equality. This is not about requesting a change of law, or Muslims asking for extra protection. We are simply asking the Government to recognise Islamophobia, accept a non-binding working definition and make a political statement to that effect. That is why I end by asking the Government to end the discriminatory behaviour towards Muslims. The Government should accept the definition, and let us all work together to tackle racism, prejudice and hatred in all its forms.
As always, it is a privilege to serve under your stewardship, Mrs Murray. I thank the hon. Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) for securing the debate, and I also thank the Members who spoke before me. I particularly thank my young colleague and former constituent—her family are still my constituents—my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana), for the heartfelt issue that she raised. She is a Member of Parliament who spoke so movingly about the hate that she has received. We serve in this Parliament and it is absolutely disgraceful, in this day and age, that the media allow that sort of behaviour to take place. It is absolutely crucial that the Government look at how we deal with that sort of media. I commend my hon. Friend and hope that she continues in the same vein, because she will be a wonderful Member of Parliament and represent the interests of her constituency.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West has said, the definition of Islamophobia under discussion is non-binding. That is not good enough for me or my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South. It is not good enough for all the people who are affected by the continuing hatred of Muslims. It is not good enough for us in this day and age. Every day that we in this place vote and go through the Lobbies, we do so to vote for legislation. We have a right to protect our citizens—that is what we are here for. We can talk as much as we want, but that is the real reason we are here, and it is what this great democratic institution allows us to do—to make legislation, day in, day out.
I am concerned about the definition of Islamophobia, as I have made clear for a long time. In 1997, the Runnymede Trust referred to Islamophobia—although its first term for it was “anti-Muslim prejudice”, which it aligned with antisemitism. What we are really discussing is the issue of hatred. That should be put in legislation and it should be a legal requirement for us, and other committed people, to deal with it. That is what I am here to speak about. There is a certain irony in the fact that the chairman of the Runnymede Trust when it produced its first definition of Islamophobia was one Mr Trevor Phillips, whom I believe is still under investigation following his criticism of the definition of Islamophobia that the Labour party has now adopted.
I might just point out that it would be very wrong of us to comment on any individual investigation. My understanding of the case that my hon. Friend mentions is that it has nothing to do with the definition. From what is quoted in the press, my understanding of the individual mentioned is that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South pointed out, he said that Muslims have a different view from that of everyone else. It is not about the definition in question. Does my hon. Friend agree?
No, I would not, because my hon. Friend just got up and said that she will not discuss the individual case. She then proceeded to do the very thing that she said we should not do. We need to look at that in much more detail. Certainly, I do not wish to discuss the substance of the case; I merely pointed out the history of the individual.
The term Islamophobia suggests that it could be a medical term, with “phobia” being used. Medical phobias include tomophobia, which is a fear of medical procedures; haemophobia, a fear of blood; trypanophobia, which is fear of needles; dentophobia, which is fear of dentists—a lot of people have that—and nosophobia, which is a fear of getting sick.
Of course. I had not completed my list, but I am grateful to my hon. Friend for completing my list.
If Islamophobia is being suggested as a medical fear, then the term Islamophobia is acceptable. If not, as it seems, and the terminology is incorrectly used, then the correct term would be anti-Muslim hatred, racism or Muslim hatred, which clearly defines on the basis that that is something being done. The actual definition that has been put forward for Islamophobia encompasses any distinction, exclusion, restriction towards or against Muslims, that has
“the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social and cultural”
and other fields.
As has been said, Muslims have been discriminated against by companies when they have Muslim-sounding names. The hon. Member for Peterborough, who led the debate, mentioned that and that is what we want to get away from. The only way we will get away from that, as with the Race Relations Act 1968, is to have definitions that are purely actionable in terms of Muslim hatred. That is what we want to look at and that is what we are here for.
We are not here to have a term for people to accept, with no real translatable meaning and which we cannot act upon. If we want to serve our constituents and tackle the issues of Muslim hatred that they go through, we should pin down the definition. We should make it clear that if people behave in such a way, somebody will call on their door and deal with it, and that if people do that through social media, somebody will look them up and call them to account. We want a definition that actually works, a definition that actually delivers for our people—not a definition that claims “a fear of”, because I never agreed with that definition.
We should push the Government—of course we should—to adopt that definition. My two learned colleagues, my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) and for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), have both been barristers. I am sure that if they were to look at this in far more detail they would find that a much more appropriate way of going forward and trying to resolve the issue. I do not know why my hon. Friend is shaking her head, because we want to have laws that enable us to prosecute people who have racist tendencies towards Muslims. That is what I want. I do not want excuses.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I was actually just moving my head; I was not agreeing or disagreeing. On the point about prosecution, yes, we have laws in place, but that does not detract from the fact that the definition of Islamophobia needs to be made. As a barrister, if someone is asking my legal opinion, I would say yes, we do need the definition.
In answering that, I say to the hon. Lady, as a barrister, that I explained what phobias there are, and they are usually used in medical terms, not in legal, prosecutorial form. The Government have to define this and we have to define this in legal terms—that is what is important.
It is not static at all. Of course language develops—I am fully aware of that. However, there is language that we have to use in Parliament, which has been established for over 500 years. Our work is based on precedent; we will continue to formulate our laws based on precedent, as we have done in the past.
Just to help my hon. Friend, the all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims had a number of lawyers engaged on this matter. Just for his assistance, I am also a lawyer. Even the former Attorney General of this country went over this. I am not sure why he is too concerned, as though lawyers were not engaged: they have been.
I thank my hon. Friend for his words of wisdom. However, I said to the former Attorney General, in the debate we had in the Chamber, that I did not believe what he intended to write. He accepted that, because he said he did not have enough time to look at that. So I agree with my hon. Friend.
Again, my hon. Friend is trying to fight a battle that I do not oppose. I am saying that it has to be done properly, in statute. That is what we are here to do; that is what I want to do; that is what is important. Using the word phobia will damage us and it will not allow us to get what we want. I want there to be a law against social media abuse—a law that helps my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South, because it affects her; a law that will allow the social media companies to tackle that abuse. I want a law that deals with someone trying not to deliver a service to my constituents because of their name. I want a law under which people get recognition for the work they do, and are not targeted because their name is religious or Muslim. I want there to be no discrimination against them, and I want an ability to formally track, log and see that abuse. I am fed up of just having words. We are here to legislate, and that is precisely what I want to do.
What I am saying is that the Government can adopt it, and I think that they should adopt it. It means nothing. I am essentially making the same point as the hon. Gentleman. I want to put it in statute so that we can continue to deal with this properly, effectively and legally, and deter those who abuse people based on their religion—on being Muslims in this country. My great-grandfather served in the British Army; my great-grandfather and grandfather served in the British merchant navy. We have a right because we are Muslims, and we are proud of being Muslims in this country. All I want is for our children and grandchildren to be protected by the legislation and not be targeted for being Muslim.
I appreciate that. There are so many people who are interested and who wanted to intervene on me. I apologise for that. Therefore I conclude by saying that I want Muslims to be put on an equal footing through legislation, so that they are protected legally by us, here in this Parliament.
Thank you, Mrs Murray. My difficulty is that I cannot do any justice to this debate in two minutes, so please bear with me. I can certainly assure you that I will not take as long as the previous speaker.
I thank the hon. Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) for securing this important and pertinent debate. I thank all individuals and campaign groups who bravely fight to raise awareness of Islamophobia and tackle it in our society on a daily basis. I also thank Bradford Council for Mosques, which this week celebrated a proud 40 years of serving our communities. I want to take this moment to commend its work, commitment and leadership, not just in Bradford but on a regional level.
Sadly, I cannot speak in this debate without feeling a deep sense of frustration and disappointment because, since we last debated this issue, Islamophobia has continued to run rife in our society. It has continued to blight our communities and, sadly, has not got any better. Indeed, the campaign group Tell MAMA last year reported that the UK had seen a rise of almost 700% in Islamophobic incidents. Let us take a minute just to take that in: a 700% rise. That is borne out by the sickening stories that people tell me of Muslim men, women and even children of all ages, in my constituency and across the country, who still face Islamophobic attacks and Islamophobic persecution on a daily basis, who are still subject to vile abuse because of their religion, and who are still told go home—even in the very town where they were born and raised.
It is a sad day when we have my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) reduced to tears for merely trying to do her job. That my hon. Friend, as one of the youngest Members, has come here and told this House that she feels she is unable to carry out her job as a democratically elected Member of Parliament is shocking and disgusting. We must all hang our heads in shame over the appalling treatment of my hon. Friend and Members like her.
At the heart of the issue is the normalisation of Islamophobia in our society. I accept the definition; I will not get into debates about a definition. The reality is the vile poison that has spread. We have seen the creation of a culture that tells people that it is acceptable to discriminate against, to persecute, to abuse Muslims because everyone else seems to be doing it. It has spread because it has been actively promoted in the rhetoric espoused in the media, and by countless public figures who reinforce over and over again a false narrative that Muslims are dangerous, and second-class citizens in our society. It has spread because it has been pushed and endorsed even by our own politicians—even by the Prime Minister, who thinks it is okay to describe Muslim women as “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”—as well as by many others who are in the public eye, talking down Muslims, treating us as a policing and social problem and promoting divisive policies that disproportionately target Muslims, such as Prevent. It has spread because society has normalised it, and that is the real problem.
Indeed, the normalisation of Islamophobia has now reached the point where it has become so commonplace and trivialised that, even if we do not see an active discrimination against Muslims that manifests in the most extreme way as violence and a vitriolic hatred by racists and bigots, we still experience a bias against us that sees Muslims denied employment opportunities, taken less seriously, and talked down to, because it has now become so endemic and so institutionalised that it has become subconscious discrimination. This normalisation is therefore as big a threat as the far right, because it creates an atmosphere on which far-right thugs and fascists feed—an environment in which they feel welcome, and in which bigoted Islamophobia can flourish unchallenged.
Mrs Murray, I am looking at the clock. I have a lot to say, but I will cut it short because of your request. The last thing I will say is this. If we are serious about tackling Islamophobia—this is where I agree with the point made earlier—we must move on from discussing the definition. We have spent the last two years talking about a definition, but that has not stopped Islamophobia. The point is that we need a definition in legislation. At the moment when these matters go to judges in courtrooms, they are not obliged to take it into account; it is a mitigating factor that they may take into account if they so wish. We need to legislate against this, which was the point made earlier by the hon. Member for Peterborough. We must stop talking and start acting—acting to stop religiously and racially motivated hate through legislation and acting, as a society, to challenge and tackle the vile and appalling normalisation of Islamophobia.
Two years ago, we had a general debate on Islamophobia in which I delivered the Labour party’s position. Sadly, two years later, no progress has been made and the Government have failed to take any action on Islamophobia. The APPG on British Muslims has worked tirelessly on creating the definition. My colleagues have already touched on the detail of accepting this definition. Many councils, 800 Muslim organisations and almost all political parties, including the Scottish Conservative party, have accepted it. However, two years later, the Tory party have shown that they are in pure denial of Islamophobia through their refusal to accept the definition proposed by the APPG and their failure to conduct an independent investigation or to appoint Government advisers on this issue. They promised all of this.
What concerns me is that the Tory party has an institutional problem and, frankly, does not care about Islamophobia. The damning Singh review earlier this year revealed institutional failings within the Conservative party in how it handled Islamophobia complaints and that it failed to engage with any Conservative Muslim parliamentarians—it did not even acknowledge or mention the term “Islamophobia”. When a definition has such widespread community support, I ask the Minister why the Government are insistent on reinventing the wheel. Let me tell him why: I know the Conservative party does not care about Islamophobia. After writing to the Prime Minister during Islamophobia Awareness Month urging him to take action and meet me and key Muslim organisations, I never received a response. It has been 10 months. Perhaps I can try again during this year’s Islamophobia Awareness Month.
The UK is home to 2.7 million Muslims, but Islamophobia is on the rise and can have distressing and real-life implications for our Muslim community. A prime example was the far right peddling false narratives during the pandemic that British Muslims were spreading coronavirus. As a result, Muslim communities have suffered a shocking 40% increase in online Islamophobia during this period, according to Tell MAMA.
The Government’s own figures reveal once again that Muslims have been victim to the highest proportion of all hate crimes committed this year. The ugly face of right-wing racism reared its head in the horrific attack in Ontario, Canada—a sobering reminder that Islamophobia can kill. Here in the UK, we have seen the chilling results of Islamophobia too. Just this week, a young Muslim student in Rotherham was repeatedly punched and kicked by fellow students, leaving him hospitalised.
These are not isolated incidents. Home Office data supports this, and shows that referrals to Prevent for extreme right-wing ideologies have exponentially increased. I, along with colleagues, have pushed for the independent review of the Prevent strategy for several years. A coalition of more than 450 Islamic organisations, including 350 mosques and imams representing thousands of British Muslims, have boycotted the Government’s review of Prevent in protest against the appointment of William Shawcross as its chair. Shawcross has openly expressed hostile views of Islam and Muslims, including saying:
“Yes, the problem is ‘Islamic fascism’”.
Will the Minister urgently outline why the Government have appointed someone with Islamophobic views? Will he also respond to the overwhelming discontent over the Shawcross appointment and put on the record why the Government refuse to engage with the Muslim Council of Britain, the largest Muslim organisation in the UK?
Finally, as chair of Labour Muslim Network and vice-chair of the APPG on British Muslims, I reaffirm my commitment to tackle Islamophobia. I hope that today the Minister will finally endorse the definition and pledge to take action.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Murray. I am grateful to the hon. Members for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) and for Bradford West (Naz Shah) for securing this debate, and for their excellent speeches, as I am for all the excellent speeches today.
As an officer for the all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims, I am always struck by what a fantastically constructive cross-party space that group is. With our collective purpose and determination, we have much to be positive about. That is just as well, because there is much to do and a great distance to travel.
Some people ask me why we need to define Islamophobia. We have to be clear about what we are talking about, what is acceptable, and why. We cannot effectively deal with Islamophobia if we and others are not confident of what it means. That matters, because we need to develop that understanding more widely. People need to know what Islamophobia is, why it is a problem, how it manifests itself, and, vitally, the impact that leaving this terrible stain on our society untackled has on far too many individuals in our communities.
We have heard the figures from Tell MAMA: there has been an increase of 700% in Islamophobic incidents. That is horrendous, and I sincerely hope that the UK Government are listening. It may be uncomfortable to confront the reality that society, even now—especially now—is Islamophobic and intolerant, but we need to acknowledge that if we hope to drive change. That is why we need the UK Government to step up and shape up.
Recently, I was pleased to receive an email from Peter Hopkins of Newcastle University; he authored a powerful report on Islamophobia in Scotland, working with the Scottish Parliament’s cross-party group. Hon. Members will, I suspect, be used to me patiently explaining how Scotland is a brilliant place. It is, of course, and I am proud to represent one of the most religiously diverse constituencies in Scotland. However, it would be a mistake to suggest that Scotland is some unique haven of tolerance, or that we, uniquely, are not affected by Islamophobia. We need to be grown up about this, and about our politics. Accepting that Islamophobia is an issue is vital. I am particularly glad that the Scottish Government has the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon on this, because I know that she is absolutely unflinching on this issue, and that really matters.
We should take heart from the people in Kenmure Street in Glasgow, who came out of their houses at Eid and stopped the Home Office from deporting their neighbours. There are things to be positive about, but we must also look hard at ourselves and recognise the reality that much progress remains to be made. A big driver in my support of independence is the opportunity for equality, respect and fairness to be the building blocks of the country. However, as we move to that, we need to act. That is why the adoption of this definition, and action, matter.
I recently had a very useful meeting, along with my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), with Zara Mohammed, the new general secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain. She is the first Scot, the first young person, and the first woman to hold that role. Zara is focused on, among many other things, the dearth of Muslim women in public life. She is absolutely right. We need far greater diversity, particularly where it would be most visible—in the higher reaches of public bodies, in leadership roles and in politics. Although I am very pleased that the Scottish Parliament is looking much more diverse this Session—I applaud all parties that contributed to making it so, and would particularly like to mention my colleague Kaukab Stewart, the new MSP for Glasgow Kelvin and the first Muslim woman elected to Holyrood—there remains a great deal to do, and Zara’s work will make a difference in that.
It is clear that women are disproportionately impacted by Islamophobia in many ways, and there are two issues to reflect on there. First, if we accept detriment to any minority group, we are opening the doors to detriment to others. Intersectionality is important, and, as the hon. Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) said in her important speech, that interrelationship between different equality groups is important, as is, I would say, the relationship between different religious groups. On the same day that I met Zara Mohammed, I also met representatives from the Glasgow Jewish Representative Council and the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities. Those organisations have very understandable concerns about antisemitism, but were also keen to discuss working with Muslim colleagues, and shared concerns regarding Islamophobia and the impact of this intolerance on all our communities.
The intolerance is increasing, as is the normalising that we heard about from the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain). There is a nasty, dark underbelly of bile, which is enabled by right-wing populists such as Trump and Farage, though they are not alone. That contributes, here and further afield, to the othering and mistreatment of Muslims. I must again reflect on the Prime Minister’s absolutely disgraceful comments about Muslim women looking like letterboxes. Those comments will have contributed to countless hardships and worse. They should not have been made. They are completely indefensible, and I struggle to understand how people can defend them.
Our Governments need to be alive to and focused on this issue, as do political parties. I am pleased the Scottish Government are taking this seriously, and that the SNP Westminster group adopted the definition of Islamophobia, but this is not political—or should not be. It should be about being part of a decent society—one to which our Muslim communities contribute immensely in Scotland, the UK and further afield.
Colleagues will wish to make use of their time, and it is important to hear what the Minister has to say, so I will conclude. So many Muslim groups in my area do really important work in our communities. We heard about all the amazing contributions made during the pandemic, but I want to put on record the immense amount of work that the Ahmadiyya Muslim community and the Scottish Ahlul Bayt Society did to support people in need during really difficult periods of the pandemic. Congregations such as those in the Woodfarm Education Centre and Langrig Road in my constituency offer vital support day in and day out.
I point out, as others have done, that this is a big issue across the world, but we need to start here by looking closely at ourselves. The fact that it is a big issue is all the more reason for us to take our position in this Parliament seriously and use it to drive forward change, so that we can better challenge Islamophobia, wherever it is. We cannot carry on as we are, so the UK Government should recognise that adopting a definition of Islamophobia is not only important, but increasingly urgent.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) on obtaining this urgent and timely debate. I thank all colleagues who have spoken. It has been a sterling debate. I particularly want to touch on what my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) was saying. I do not know if it will help her, but many of us Muslim women have been abused in a similar format. I have had emails and messages on social media saying that I am, and I quote, words beginning with “f” and “b”, and that I should be sent off to Saudi Arabia to be raped. There are all kinds of interesting words being used and letters written. That does not help, but I hope that she understands.
Islamophobia has been rising in this country and in the western world at a very disturbing rate in recent years. Despite this, as we have heard today, there is still no accepted definition of Islamophobia. There are three million Muslims in the UK—almost 5% of our overall population. Despite Muslims having been present in this country as far back as the 16th century, many believe they are treated as the other. Islamophobia permeates all domains of our society. It threatens education, limits employment prospects and impacts everyday issues, including health, wellbeing and housing.
It is time that we finally address the issue. In 2019, the all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims worked tirelessly to create a definition of Islamophobia that was widely applauded and supported by over 750 organisations. As was mentioned, the definition has been adopted by the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the Scottish National party, the Mayor of London and the Mayor of Greater Manchester. It has been debated in this House and has received cross-party support, so it is disappointing that two years later, we are still urging the Government to do the right thing. That is an absolute denial from this Government. To add insult to injury, they cannot even bring themselves to use the term “Islamophobia”.
In May, the Singh report, resulting from an independent investigation into the handling of Islamophobia by the Conservative party, was published. It was a damning indictment of the discrimination rife in the party. It found that Islamophobia is a serious issue for it, and that the concerns had too easily been denied or dismissed. Indeed, it even looked at the Prime Minister’s comments about women wearing burqas looking like “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”, which we have heard a lot about. It found that Islamophobic incidents of hate rose by 375% in the week after the Prime Minister made those comments. The report called for the party leadership to publish an action plan to set out how it will tackle the failings it found. Will the Minister today acknowledge the scale of the problem? Will he update us on the progress his party has made on the action plan and the new code of conduct?
In my party, I pay tribute to the work of the Labour Muslim Network, which brought to our attention its findings and concerns about Islamophobia. Unlike the leadership of the Conservative party, we are seriously committed to tackling and eradicating Islamophobia, both in our party and in society.
We are often told by critics of the APPG’s definition that it should not imply that some Islamophobia is rooted in racism, yet the evidence says otherwise. Last year, the largest number of referrals to the Government Prevent programme related to far-right extremism. Indeed, the Security Minister warned that far-right terror poses a growing threat, and we all know the consequences of that ideology.
A recent report by Hope Not Hate found that Islamophobia has become the driving force behind the rise of far-right movements in the UK, and that anti-Muslim prejudice has replaced immigration as the key driver of such groups. A poll found that 35% of Britons think that Islam is generally a threat to the British way of life. We see this happening globally, and particularly in western Europe, where there has been a rise of far-right political parties and discriminatory laws passed in France and other countries. Earlier this year, a UN expert concluded at the UN Human Rights Council that Islamophobia has reached epidemic proportions globally, and that Muslims are often targeted because of visible characteristics, such as names, skin colour and clothing.
Many, including this Government, argue that Muslims are not a race. Of course they are not a race, but they are racialised when they are treated as having characteristics that mark them as wholly different. The question when it comes to racism is whether there is a set of attitudes and behaviours that are socially widespread and used to justify discrimination against a particular group. That is why it makes sense to call antisemitism and Islamophobia forms of racism.
I am the chair of the APPG on religion in the media, and last year we conducted an inquiry on religious literacy in the British media. Our report found that media reporting can be sensationalist, and that it reinforces stereotypes and contributes towards discriminatory attitudes. Headlines such as “1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy for jihadis” and references to “Muslim problems” have real-world consequences. Of course, journalists should be able to question and criticise religion—we live in a democracy that values freedom of speech—but this is about not censorship but transparency. We ask the Government to consider looking at press regulation, because the current system of self-regulation is not working.
Does the Minister at least accept the inescapable reality, which is that Islamophobia has damaging consequences for the life chances of and equalities enjoyed by British Muslim communities? There are people in the UK who are scared to leave their home for fear of verbal or physical attacks. People have withdrawn from public services, with devastating knock-on consequences for their health and education. They feel like outsiders in their own country. That should shame us all.
Last year, in the other place, when the Government were asked about the progress that they had made on adopting a definition, they said that the definition proposed by the APPG was not compatible with the Equality Act 2010, which treats race and religion separately, and
“could have consequences for freedom of speech.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 13 February 2020; Vol. 801, c. 2337.]
Can the Minister tell us whether he or the Government have published for public scrutiny any evidence regarding the legal advice that suggests that the APPG definition is incompatible with the Act? It has been repeatedly noted by experts that the working definition of Islamophobia is not legally binding, and therefore presents no challenges to statute, which takes legal precedence. I ask the Minister not to revert to the predictable, rehearsed responses and platitudes that we have heard from the Government. Each time they do that, they show their disdain for the British Muslim community.
In this debate, the ask is simple: adopt this definition, which has been accepted by cross-party MPs, national groups and hundreds of organisations. In some respects, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood). We need a definition because it will be a starting point for addressing the real issue of Islamophobia that we face in this country. Islamophobia is rising not just in the United Kingdom but in France, Austria and other parts of the western world. Muslims are being treated as though they are fifth columnists—as though they do not belong in this society.
I referred to our inquiries on media coverage. I do not want to restrict free speech—I am sure nobody here wants to—but we ask the Government to look at cases in which the newspapers and others publish pure lies. There is a difference between covering something and carrying blatant lies, like the story about one in five Muslims having sympathy for Isis, or The Sunday Times coverage of a Muslim family who had adopted a child in the east end of London, which turned out to be completely made up.
Those kinds of stories cause people to view Muslims with suspicion and lead to hatred towards Muslims. Let us face it: a lot of people will probably never meet a Muslim in their life, and their understanding of what a Muslim is comes from what they read in the newspaper or watch on the television. Therefore what our media, social media, press and others say is an important part of this debate.
My hon. Friend makes a really valuable and pertinent point. Does she agree that the situation is far worse than that? We see Islamophobic tropes increasing under the guise of freedom of speech. Would she agree that freedom of speech is not an absolute right? It does not give you a right to promote hatred, and it certainly does not give you a carte-blanche right to attack Muslims.
I will proceed as quickly as I possibly can. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) and my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) on securing this debate.
I want to begin by saying that although, unfortunately, the hon. Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) and I agree on nothing politically, I admire her tremendously. Together, we have done the local politics programme in the west midlands—it is always a pleasure to be on it with her. I can only imagine that she is a true inspiration to women of all political persuasions when it comes to entering politics. Whatever abuse she may suffer from a bunch of idiots, she is reaching far more people as an inspiration. She should take heart from that.
I am blessed in my constituency to be aided by two excellent Muslim councillors, who are true community representatives; Councillor Gaz Ali and Councillor Amo Hussain do tremendous work across their ward, and across all demographics with people of all faiths and none. It is a pleasure to work with them. I am also delighted that Imam Hafiz Shahid Bashir Qadri gifted me a copy of the Koran, and has taken time to explain parts of it to me. My education is an ongoing project, but I am incredibly grateful for his kindness and his patience.
My point is that people learn by experience; when they experience members of the Muslim community, they see the tremendous work that they do within the community. That is to everybody’s credit, and that is how we will build a better society.
My hon. Friend has reminded me that I did a terrible thing and failed to acknowledge the great plethora of Conservative councillors who I have in my constituency. I said “supporters”, but there are councillors too. We have had many Conservative—and, indeed, Labour—Muslim councillors in Wycombe for a very long time. I am extremely grateful for all of the brilliant work that they do.
I completely concur with my hon. Friend’s comments.
As a man of faith, I firmly believe that Muslims in our country should be able to practise their faith in freedom. This Government have always been clear that they do not, and will not, tolerate anti-Muslim hatred in any form, and will continue to combat such discrimination and intolerance wherever it occurs. We have instituted some of the strongest legislation in the world to tackle incidents where people incite religious hatred, or are engaged in criminal activity motivated by religion. We have also supported Muslim communities in combating anti-Muslim hatred. We are supporting groups fighting anti-Muslim hatred on the ground, including through the places of worship protective security funding scheme, which has supported more than 240 places of worship, with approximately £5 million in grants enabling them to install measures such as protective alarms, security lighting and access controls.
Following the Christchurch attacks, we funded faith associations to run 22 training sessions during, and prior to, Ramadan, to provide advice to mosque leaders on how to improve security. In November 2020, we awarded £1.8 million through the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government faith, race and hate crime grant scheme to support established community groups and civil society organisations to run projects to boost shared values and tackle religiously and racially motivated hate crime. We funded work in schools and with young people, including through the Anne Frank Trust UK and Solutions Not Sides; these two organisations, funded through our grant scheme, aim to bring religious communities together to tackle prejudice and discrimination against religious groups from a young age. Today we announced the faith new deal: a pilot fund that will provide £1 million to support faith groups to deliver innovative partnership projects that will benefit communities as they recover from the impact of covid-19.
We believe that the definition proposed by the APPG for British Muslims, although well supported, is not fit for purpose, and that, if adopted, it would create significant practical and legal issues. Islam is a religion that includes a wide range of races and thus stating, as the definition does, that Islamophobia is a type of racism is incorrect and conflates religion with race. These concerns have been raised by the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, the former chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and the director of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding. A poll by the organisation Muslim Census found that only 21% of Muslims polled agreed with the APPG definition, primarily due to the confusion it creates between race and religion. The report says:
“For attacks on Muslims and Islam to be dealt with appropriately, selecting a definition that the majority of Muslims agree with is vital. The findings of our survey suggest that the APPG definition does not have the backing of the community.”
I would be interested to understand whether the IHRA definition accepted by the Government was accepted unanimously, by every single person, because there is lots of debate on that—yet, when it comes to this one, the Government have said what they have said. I would really value any examples that the Minister could point me to on the issues of the legality, given that it is a non-legally-binding definition.
I am not sure whether the definition that the hon. Lady refers to was completely universally accepted, but it is internationally accepted—and therein lies the difference.
As has been raised by the former commissioner for countering extremism and the Government’s current independent adviser for social cohesion, the APPG’s definition does nothing to address the issue of sectarianism or the right of minority Muslim groups such as the Ahmadiyya community, who may receive prejudice from other Muslim communities who do not agree with their views.
Finally, the definition suggested may have negative implications for free speech. Concerns have been raised that the lack of clarity in the definition could lead to its being used as a back-door blasphemy law, providing a shield for Islamists to espouse hatred, and to criticise or disregard anyone who challenges them as Islamophobic.
The Minister just referred to the back-door blasphemy law. If there is a back-door blasphemy law, it is what the Conservative party is putting through with the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which protects statues because of commemorative feelings. That is back-door blasphemy, not this definition.
I would really like to understand: since when does any definition deal with issues among communities? It is absolutely like a dead cat on the table: “Let’s just not adopt the definition”—more than 750 organisations, more than 60 academics. This is just the Conservative party throwing the issue into the long grass, because they do not want to take responsibility and they do not care about Muslims.
I am afraid time will not allow interventions, if I am to conclude.
We remain committed to there being a robust and effective definition, and we will outline our steps to achieve that in due course. I thank hon. Members for the views they have put forward. However, we cannot accept a definition of Islamophobia that shuts down legitimate criticism and debate. Freedom of speech is the foundation of a healthy society, allowing for debate and disagreement underpinned by the values that bind people together—tolerance, equality and fairness. It is important that all have the right to speak freely and provide legitimate criticism.
Since being elected in 2019, I have heard a few speeches that will remain with me for the rest of my life. The hon. Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) and I will agree on little, but she will find me standing side by side with her in her fight against Islamophobia. I was humbled and privileged to listen to her speech.
We have had an interesting debate today. What is clear—I hope the Minister takes this away—is the strength of feeling people have on the issue, and that Muslim communities up and down the country have. We heard some positives about the contribution that Muslim communities have made to this country, and we have heard some negatives, sadly, about Islamophobia, discrimination and racism.
The hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) made a statement about the Conservative party. There is a difference between the Conservative party and the Government; when she conflates those two things, it does her case no good whatever.
I hope that the Minister will have heard very clearly the need for this definition. Once the definition is there, we can move forward together. It is just a start, but we can start rooting out anti-Muslim hatred.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the definition of Islamophobia.