HL Deb 17 March 2004 vol 659 cc259-61

2.40 p.m.

Lord Clarke of Hampstead asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action is being taken to combat anti-Semitism in the United Kingdom.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

My Lords, the Government have in recent years strengthened both the legal framework against race discrimination and the criminal penalties for offences such as incitement to racial hatred and for racially or religiously aggravated assault and criminal damage. Police forces continue to be alert to crimes being committed against members of the Jewish community and take appropriate steps to safeguard people and property. Furthermore, we support and are encouraging the growing amount of dialogue that is taking place between communities, including faith communities, in the United Kingdom.

Lord Clarke of Hampstead

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that positive Answer. Does she agree that we are witnessing the return of the oldest hatred? Figures recently released by the Community Security Trust speak for themselves. In 2003, there was a 15 per cent rise in anti-Semitic assaults; 104 synagogues have been vandalised in just over three years; and the damage and desecration of Jewish property in 2003 alone rose by 31 per cent.

Does my noble friend agree that this country has a long history of combating anti-Semitism, but that this recent resurgence has been coupled with claims that the Jewish community is suffering as a result of its support for and affiliation with the state of Israel? Does my noble friend further agree that the conviction of racially and religiously aggravated offences we have witnessed should not be conditional upon people of the Jewish religion having to denounce the state of Israel? What is being done about that?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I totally agree with my noble friend. Expressions of hatred of Jewish people, let alone attacks on persons and property, are simply unacceptable. Criticisms of the policies of a foreign government cannot be used to justify such behaviour.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, does the Minister consider that the provisions relating to the incitement of racial and religious hatred are adequate? How many cases have been brought before the court involving those who have perpetrated racially and religiously aggravated crimes?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we now have appropriate legislation to deal with these issues. There have been increasing figures. The CPS figures for racist incidents show that in relation to the period 2001–02, there were 5,764 charges and 3,597 of those were prosecuted. Those are the most recent figures we have.

The figure for the total number of anti-Semitic incidents in the United Kingdom for 2003 is 375; that is 25 more than last year. It is a worrying figure, but we have some good examples of prosecutions which are robust and successful. The most important was that for which a period of nine years' imprisonment followed. We are therefore giving the clearest signal possible that this behaviour is wholly and totally unacceptable.

Lord Haskel

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is important to understand the reasoning behind the n umbers? Is she aware that the Institute for Jewish Policy Research—I declare an interest as its president—has been allowed by the Metropolitan Police to have access to their records so that a proper study can be made of the nature of these incidents, their location, social context and motivation? Is it not important to understand those aspects so that we can then understand more fully the exact nature of anti-Semitism and racial hatred in this country?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, as my noble friend says, it is very important for us to understand the basis of such prejudice and dreadful behaviour, because it is only by understanding it that we might be able to craft something that will work to stop it.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford

My Lords, as the noble Baroness is well aware, there is much discussion about the possible interconnection between the policies of the state of Israel and the rise of anti-Semitism. Will she encourage other organisations to follow the good example of the Government and remind people that, however critical they might be of this Israeli Government—and some of the most critical voices come from Israel itself—that state has legitimate security needs which need to be publicly recognised?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we have made that plain and it would be right to underscore it. All the efforts that are being undertaken by ordinary men and women who come together to try to change the culture are equally important. I commend to the House the efforts being made by the Women's Interface Network. It was started by Lady Levy and brings women together from across the board to discuss, share and develop a better understanding that we should all try to generate.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, as the Government acknowledge that incitement to religious hatred is a growing evil and that actual offences motivated by religious hatred are increasing, why have not the Government found time to debate the report of the Select Committee on Religious Offences?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, all debates have to go through the usual channels to find space. I know that the noble Lord may wish that the Government had a greater say over the usual channels. We may wish for that as well, but we simply do not have it.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, despite the comments of my noble friend, does she agree that anti-Semitism and other racial crimes have increased, but should not have done so? The whole House will understand her unconditional repudiation of all racial crime. In my view, that is what we should stand for.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. There has been a rise in racially motivated crimes—both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. condemn both.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the French Minister for education has just launched a pamphlet that gives guidance for French schools to deal with and counter the worrying rise in anti-Semitic incidents there? If the Government are not already doing so, would they consider giving such guidance to schools in this country?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I was not aware that the French Minister of education was doing that. I can reassure my noble friend that the Department for Education and Skills is fully supportive of all that we do and tries to ensure that children and people in education are aware of our firm views on appropriate behaviour and comments; and that they form an important part of citizenship and other educational programmes in our schools.