HC Deb 22 June 2004 vol 422 cc301-23WH

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Fiona Mactaggart.]

9.30 am
Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab)

I apologise for the fact that I have a streaming cold; I suspect that my contribution to the debate will be even more irritating than usual because of my rather nasal tone.

I am extremely grateful to have the opportunity to initiate this debate. It will be no surprise that I was prompted to do so by the recent publication of the report of the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia, chaired by my long-time friend and colleague Dr. Richard Stone. The report makes an important contribution to the debate. The previous report, published in 1997, has acquired vastly greater significance since the events of September 2001.

I believe that Muslims in Britain are now at the sharp end of race hatred and xenophobia, something that the Muslim Council of Britain recently described as

a relentless increase in hostility towards Islam and British Muslims".

I venture to suggest that one of the reasons for that is the extent to which Islam, asylum, immigration and terror have become conflated in the public mind. That does not mean, however, that there is no race discrimination, xenophobia or disadvantage targeted at Britain's other minority communities. Should my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he may want to speak on that subject. I was disturbed to read in today's newspapers of the attacks on synagogues in his constituency. As was outlined in a recent debate in the House, we have seen a significant increase in anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic attacks. We condemn that absolutely and unequivocally. Race hatred and xenophobia are not divisible. Hatred directed towards one community affects us all. When condemning it we should not suggest that hatred of one community is worse than hatred of another.

Last night saw the timely launch, which I welcome, of the Alif-Aleph manifesto for promoting understanding between Britons, Muslims and British Jews. That, too, involved my friend Dr. Stone. The manifesto reminds us of the limitless potential for understanding and tolerance between communities, as well as of the sadness of the scale of race hatred and race attacks, even in our country.

We need to understand why the Muslim community in Britain perceives its sense of discrimination and disadvantage so acutely. I shall give some objective figures in a moment, although we need to understand that the "relentless increase" in race hatred is global. I do not wish to spend much time on that, because it warrants many debates. However, although some may argue the point, it is worth reminding ourselves of the strong perception among British Muslims that the international situation is revealing them to be second-class world citizens. Some of that is rooted in opposition to the Iraq war; but the war itself is compounded by the horror of the abuses in Abu Ghraib, the deaths of civilians in Falluja, the desperate plight of Palestinians in Gaza and the west bank, and the suppression of human rights among Muslims held in Guantanamo bay. All have an effect on the psyche.

Linking the domestic to the international agenda, there is real fear and anxiety over the return of failed asylum seekers to the shattered state of Somalia. That is sending out a shockwave across Muslim communities in my constituency and elsewhere. Muslims are not alone in their reaction to the global situation. Much could be said in response to all those points, but there is little doubt that the international situation is having an impact on domestic debates at a level that we have not seen before. That reinforces the importance of entering into dialogue at all levels, so that the anger and fear in those parts of the community is not simply pent up.

My core comments have more to do with the domestic agenda. Antagonism and prejudice are being fuelled by competition for scarce resources, which arises as a consequence of social inequality, and disadvantages Muslims and other minority groups. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) will comment if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because the northern towns are experiencing a different version of the competition for work and regeneration funds. In the south, the competition is for housing.

The Government's efforts to tackle the scars of poverty and inequality in Britain, from the regeneration programmes through to public service investment, have had a major effect. Much still remains to be done, however, not least because society has not stood still in the seven years since many of those programmes began. I have seen that in my constituency, which is one of the parts of London that has undergone rapid change in the past two decades. Regeneration agencies describe it as "an area of arrival". That is nothing new. A short walk around Paddington and North Kensington and, indeed, a few meals there demonstrate the large number of communities that have arrived and settled in the area. There are the Irish and Spanish communities, for example, and the Caribbean people who arrived on the Windrush.

We now have several Muslim communities, which, I venture to suggest, are the most disparate in the world. In my constituency, there are Bangladeshi and Moroccan communities, as well as people from Iraq, Iran, Kosovo, Bosnia, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt and Algeria—to name those community organisations with which I am familiar. According to Westminster's draft ethnic minority needs audit, Westminster has the 13th highest proportion of Muslims in the country.

The danger of lumping those disparate organisations into the catch-all description "Muslims" is obvious. Some are refugees, but many are not. Some are relatively recent arrivals, but others, such as those in the Bangladeshi community, have been a settled feature of local life for decades. Some are from severely impoverished countries and failed states, such as Somalia. Others, such as those from Iraqi and Kosovan communities in particular, are disproportionately likely to have professional and highly educated backgrounds. Some of the communities that have settled around the Edgware road in central London have extremely wealthy backgrounds. Some of the Muslim communities are secular. Some attend mosque but keep their faith largely private; others are informed by their belief in every aspect of their political and daily lives. A few are extremists.

Diversity is a key element of the Muslim community, as it is in modern urban society as a whole, but my daily experience tells me—and my conclusions dovetail with the commission's recent report—that we know far less than we should about the needs, characteristics and even the numbers of many of our minority communities. What we do know about such things as the concentrations of poverty is already sufficiently compelling to make the case for more substantial and targeted action. We know that the scale of disadvantage facing many in the Muslim communities is institutional and indirect, and flows from the challenge of demography as much as from any explicit policy.

We know that we need to do more to work with the Muslim community to ensure that their interests and needs are reflected in the infrastructure. Schooling is a very good example, but another issue that has been brought repeatedly to my attention in the past few years is the need to address the shortage of burial grounds for Muslims. Those are the sorts of very practical but important issues that we need to do more to address.

Some of the statistics that we do have make the case about disadvantage. Children from black and ethnic minority communities are most likely to be living in poverty. A staggering 75 per cent. of Pakistani and Bangladeshi households live in poverty. Some 17 per cent. of all children, but 35 per cent. of Muslim children, are in workless households. In London, the figure rises to 24 per cent. of all children and 41 per cent. of Muslim children. Some 16 per cent. of Muslims of working age have never worked and are long-term unemployed.

In the census, all ethnic groups reported particularly high unemployment among young men, with 40 per cent. of young Bangladeshi men out of work. The conjunction of demography—the high and rising child population—and high unemployment should have triggered a sharper response, but the new deal, for example, has not reached as many unemployed young people of black, Muslim and other ethnic minority backgrounds as it should have done.

Westminster's audit of ethnic minority communities further underpins the deprivation case. It shows that the four wards with the highest scores in the most recent index of deprivation account for a quarter of the total population but between a half and three quarters of the African and Bangladeshi communities. Yet, some of those wards do not even benefit from the Sure Start programme.

Sadly, there is no equivalent study for North Kensington. despite the obvious pressures in the area. We can only assume that the Moroccan community in Golborne, for example, experiences similar problems, but it would be good to be certain. That is another example of the need for us to do local, rigorous work to establish the community's needs.

My friend Bashir Ebrahim-Khan, the deputy director of the North Kensington Muslim cultural heritage centre, recently wrote to me, saying

decades of social exclusion in North Kensington has produced an underclass of people cut off from society's mainstream, without any sense of shared purpose". Yet, more than a quarter of North Kensington is not included in the Sure Start programme, and half was not covered in the council's most recent children's centre plan. Furthermore what will happen to regeneration funding if the neighbourhood renewal fund dries up in 2006?

Housing is a particularly acute pinch point. Data from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister confirm the extent of housing deprivation, estimating that 2 per cent. of white families, but 22 per cent. of Pakistani families, 30 per cent. of Bangladeshi families and 15 per cent. of African families live in overcrowded accommodation. The Greater London authority has just provided me with research showing that 42 per cent. of Muslim children are in overcrowded accommodation. Homelessness is also a particular risk factor for African, Bangladeshi and Pakistani families. My experience as a constituency MP is that there is a chronic and growing overcrowding problem, which is impacting particularly on Muslim households. As the deputy director of the Muslim cultural heritage centre emphasised to me,

Something drastic has to be done to reduce housing overcrowding.

In addition to poverty, unemployment and housing need, Britain's Muslim communities are increasingly concerned about crime and policing, including stop and search. Members or black, Muslim and other ethnic minority communities are at particular risk of being the victims of racially motivated crime, and that was true even before 2001. A survey in 2000 found that the risk of racial attack was 10 times greater for Pakistani and Bangladeshi families than for white people, but the situation has undoubtedly deteriorated since the events of 2001. Indeed, the Muslim Council of Britain referred to recent figures from the Metropolitan police, which show a 41 per cent. increase in attacks.

There is work to be done on the other side of the equation to ensure that police and community relations are well managed and that legitimate efforts to tackle crime and the threat of terror do not alienate young Muslims and risk undermining the flow of intelligence. North Kensington is probably one of the least likely problem areas, because of the history of racial diversity and good relationships with the police in recent years, but a meeting attended by Moroccan and Somali residents last week reported an increase in attacks on places of worship since 11 September, including abuse of and assaults on women wearing the hijab, under-reporting of racial assaults and abuse, and a sense of being disproportionately targeted for stop and search without charge. Indeed, there was anecdotal evidence that some people had been picked up as often as five times in one day. We all know that stop and search plays an important role in the fight against crime and terror, but nothing tackles either so well as good intelligence and good community relations. A proper balance must be struck.

Taken together, the national, London and local figures paint a picture of disproportionate poverty, worklessness, housing need, rising populations of children and young people, a rising incidence of racial attacks and harassment, and a strong perception among members of young Muslim families—borne out by the figures in some cases—that they are being targeted for stop and search. All that implies the need for a far more comprehensive approach that responds more closely to such complex and varied patterns of disadvantage and opportunity.

The Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia, which inspired me to apply for this debate, quite rightly found that there have been important developments in recent years, which have done much to improve the Government's response to the needs of Britain's Muslims. That includes the outlawing of discrimination in employment on the grounds of religion, the inclusion of religious discrimination in the remit of the single equality commission, more severe sentences for offences aggravated by religious hostility, the establishment of the faith communities unit in the Home Office, and the development of Islamic mortgages However, there is more to do, with the world changing as fast as it has been in recent years.

The commission's report sets out a number of key priorities and the monitoring of progress against the indicators flagged up in the 1997 report. Can the Minister tell me how the Government have interpreted the commission's report? Will some of the main recommendations be taken forward? In particular, will the Government respond to the need demonstrated in their opinion polls for the agenda of tackling racial discrimination in the delivery of services to be one of the highest priorities? How will the Home Office take the lead to ensure that the institutional disadvantages in social and economic policy that I have outlined will be tackled?

To what extent does the latest information from the census and other sources about the cultural, social and economic problems facing British Muslims inform the work of Government across Departments, so that there is a concerted drive to tackle those problems? What are the next steps for promoting community cohesion? Unfortunately, the Muslim cultural heritage centre in North Kensington missed out on the last round of community cohesion investment. We know that there is a real sense that Muslim organisations do not have the opportunities to apply for the funding that they would like, both to strengthen their own communities and to develop outreach and partnership with other communities.

Once again, the commission is to be congratulated on its work. It chimes with and reflects a reality that I see everyday in my constituency. There is real potential, even in the stressed circumstances of the years since 11 September 2001, to demonstrate that Britain can be the most successful multi-faith and multicultural society in modern times. However, that means tackling head on some of the challenges, needs and disadvantages that face British Muslims today.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Nicholas Winterton)

The hon. Lady coped with her cold very well. To help the Chamber, I should say that it is my intention to start the winding-up speeches at half-past 10. I hope that those who catch my eye will bear that in mind.

9.47 am
Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I will certainly bear your words in mind and be brief. I want to deal with some specific points about the discrimination and disadvantages faced by Muslim citizens in rural areas such as my own, particularly in areas where there are either few Muslim people or high numbers but a low density of Muslim people.

The subject is interesting to me, as the situation is akin to that faced by Welsh speakers, particularly in the south and east of Wales. There are large numbers of them but it is difficult for them to access services because of a lack of official recognition, which results from the lower density. Equally, in my part of Wales at least some Muslim people face similar problems of obtaining social and official recognition as a group. There are practical problems, such as accessing services as Muslim people. We know what that means—problems with diet, with residential services for Muslim elders and with religious observance.

Conventionally, such problems are seen as affecting urban areas, such as Leicester or Bradford. However, they also occur not only in rural parts of Wales but, I am sure, in rural parts of England. Muslim people are isolated and there is a lack of support from kin or other members of the community, for practical reasons of density and distance. In addition, because there are comparatively few Muslims in the locality, awareness is low among other members of the community who would be sympathetic.

There is no reason to suppose that Wales is any less racist or less prone to discriminate. It is a matter for dismay that 700 people in my county voted for the British National party. That was disgraceful. I was amazed and I hope that they are not fervent supporters. The leader of BNP is a north Wales resident and a BNP youth training camp was recently held in Snowdonia, in my constituency. I am grateful to hon. Members who signed my early-day motion opposing that camp.

In my constituency, which is in a very white and Welsh-speaking part of north-west Wales, there have been racist attacks targeting members of the Turkish community and their businesses. That is why I welcome the renewed vigour of the Commission for Racial Equality in Wales, particularly in north Wales, where it has established an office at Colwyn Bay.

We do, however, have a greater concentration of Muslims at a very local level in the town of Bangor, which is outside my constituency. It has a comparatively large Muslim community because of the university there, which attracts many foreign students, and the local hospital, where a number of Muslim people work. In some ways, their needs are unrecognised because of the general lack of awareness in public bodies and local authorities. There are also Welsh people who are Muslims: people who have lived in north-west Wales since the '60s, whose children were born there and are Welsh-speaking Muslims, and some local people who have converted to Islam, too.

I hope that the Government recognise that there are particular problems in areas such as mine. I shall be interested to hear from the Minister whether any attention has been paid to them or action taken about them. The local mosque, which was established with considerable difficulty because of the low numbers and small resources available, now faces a drastic problem. Like many businesses and institutions in the constituency, it has found that its public liability insurance has shot up for no reason that it can discern. I spoke recently to the imam, Mr. Khan, who tells me that the existence of the mosque is precarious and its future is endangered by the huge increase in costs. That is disastrous, given the low level of support available locally.

I shall close by asking the Government whether they have considered the problems that mosques—particularly the one in Bangor—face in obtaining insurance and whether they have they come to any conclusions. I also pose again the general question about discrimination and disadvantage in rural areas where there are low concentrations of Muslim people.

9.54 am
Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) on having secured this important debate. It is timely, in view of the report on Islamophobia, and it is appropriate to pay a short tribute to the work of Dr. Stone, who chaired the commission. He is a personal friend and was my GP before he retired from medical practice to devote more time to inter-faith dialogue. He has done a magnificent job and played a leading role in that work.

Like my hon. Friend, I have a diverse community in my constituency. I was pleased that she remarked on the appalling attack on the synagogue in Hendon. We do not know who did it—police inquiries are ongoing. What made it particularly bad was the fact that the attack was on texts, books and learning. I know that Muslims take great pride in the fact that Islam was able to keep alive so much learning anal knowledge during the dark ages in the west and then return a lot of it to us, so I know that Muslims in my constituency will be as horrified as everyone else by the attack on the synagogue. All decent-thinking people of any faith would condemn any attack on any place of worship. In my constituency, we have worked hard to maintain good and harmonious relations between all the different faiths. The police have worked hard to achieve that, not just by making sure that mosques and synagogues were protected against any possible backlash after 11 September, but in setting up a dialogue over many years.

One problem that we face is the way in which extremists seem to have hijacked the media agenda regarding Muslims. I have, perhaps, built a reputation as an arch-critic of extremists such as Abu Hamza and Omar Bakri Mohammed. Some of those extremists have branded me as a despicable, Islamophobic arch-Zionist—I think that that was the last quote. If I am a despicable Islamophobe, I am afraid that quite a lot of the Muslims in my constituency also fit that category. I know from talking to people in my constituency that the vast and overwhelming majority of Muslims want nothing to do with those extremists and actively condemn them.

However, Muslims are concerned that they are called upon all the time, as other people are not, to condemn extremists. Why should the Muslim community be treated any differently in that respect? As an elected politician, it is my job to voice their concerns on their behalf—which I do, although I am occasionally criticised for it—in the same way as I voice the concerns of all the other communities in my constituency. That should be adequate they should not be called on time and again to express their views and condemnation, while others are not. As a result, we see a disproportionate coverage of extremists, who do not in any way reflect mainstream Islam in this country, but we do not see similar condemnation of other extreme fundamentalist religious groups. Some of the activities of the Christian far right strike me with as much fear as the activities of those extremists.

My hon. Friend mentioned the hatred and vilification of asylum seekers and people seeking to settle here. I know from my work on this issue that very few asylum seekers have anything to do with terrorism—a handful, if that. Yet, all asylum seekers seem to be lumped in with that campaign.

Ms Buck

Just for the record, will my hon. Friend confirm that the majority of Muslim refugees who came to this country to apply for asylum were fleeing the very fundamentalism from which they are called on to disassociate themselves?

Mr. Dismore

My hon. Friend anticipates my remarks to the word—perhaps because we have known each other so long. That was my next point. There is an unhelpful mixing up of domestic and international politics.

The real issue is not what should happen in the middle east, but that has become a flashpoint. If one talks to people in the Jewish and Muslim communities in my constituency, one finds great agreement on what the solution should be: apart from extremists on both sides, both communities recognise the need for a two-state solution with a viable Palestinian state and an Israel secure within her borders. Yet it has become a divisive issue, and a symbol of something far greater in terms of the problems facing Muslims in this country.

The war in Iraq has been treated similarly. We all have our reasons for the way in which we voted. I supported the war, not so much over the issue of weapons of mass destruction, but because I have spent my life campaigning against evil dictators, and for once we finally had the chance to get rid of one, who has killed something like 1.5 million Muslims—more than any other person in history—and who was oppressing his own people, who are almost all Muslim, with horrific torture, imprisonment and murder. It is clear that the people of Iraq had no prospect whatever of freeing themselves from his tyranny. It is right to say that many Muslims died, but many more would have died if we had not intervened, and they would have died in horrific circumstances over a long period. We have not found the weapons of mass destruction; we have found the mass graves first.

In considering the Government's international activities we should remind people that our first military intervention was in Kosovo. We intervened to protect hundreds of thousands of Muslims from ethnic cleansing by the allegedly Christian Serbs under the brutal dictator Milosevic. That shows a degree of even-handedness in international intervention.

My hon. Friend referred to terrorism. I know that there is concern about police action in that respect. I have had many dealings with the police over the issue, and I have great respect for the people at Scotland Yard. Contrary to popular belief, they approach it with a significant degree of sensitivity. There has been no "Casablanca" moment of rounding up the usual suspects, although many Muslims have been detained. The police tell me, "Yes, we have detained people. A lot of people have been charged and are awaiting trial." They believe that when some of the trials are held people will begin to recognise that they acted legitimately.

It is also important to bear in mind the fact that we have banned not just Muslim groups but other groups. There was an outcry in my constituency over the banning of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in the context of the Tamil liberation movement in Sri Lanka. This is not a numbers game. There just happen to be more organisations involved in terrorism associated in some way with Islam; perhaps other groups are more cohesive.

As for international issues relating to detention, I share many of the concerns that have been expressed about Guantanamo bay. I support those bringing a case to the United States Supreme Court, and hope that it will recognise some of the rights of those involved. However, it is also right to recognise that Belmarsh is not Guantanamo bay. There are significant differences. The people there are not held incommunicado. They have access to lawyers of their choice and their detention is overseen judicially, as we have seen in connection with recent challenges to Government decisions.

I should also say that indefinite detention is not recognition of human rights. We have had to derogate from the European convention on human rights to be able to do that. I support the power of detention, but detention cannot be for ever. It is important to try as far as possible to bring proper cases in court against the people in question. I have looked into the records of one or two of them, and I think that there is a case to answer. I am surprised that one, in particular, has not already faced criminal charges. However, the key is perhaps the review of the law that is now under way, with particular reference to the rules of evidence. For example, if we were allowed to use intercept evidence in court, as happens in other countries, it might be possible for those involved to go on trial and face justice, and to be released if innocent or face the penalties under the law if not.

I am surprised that we have still not comprehensively outlawed religious discrimination The issue is of particular concern to the Muslim community. We have, in the teeth of much opposition in the other place, introduced a law to outlaw discrimination in employment, but as my hon. Friend outlined in her statistics, we have a long way to go to ensure implementation of the law. We know that Muslim people are more likely to be unemployed and to be in low-paid jobs.

We now have laws under which Islamophobia can be taken into account as an aggravating factor, as we have laws on race in general. However, the willingness of the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecute in such cases is a factor. I know from my work not only with the Muslim community but with the Jewish community that there is a feeling of injustice—a feeling that although the police have come a long way and are interested in investigating offences reported to them, the Crown Prosecution Service has a long way to go, and could perhaps make bolder decisions.

It is appalling that we still have no law against discrimination in the provision of services, even by the Government's agencies. We still do not have equality of opportunity in the civil service. That is why, for the second or third year, I am promoting a private Member's Bill, the Crown Employment (Nationality) Bill, to open the civil service to competition on merit, reserving only a small number of posts, where necessary, for people of UK nationality.

I am appalled that three Conservative Members went out of their way to block the Bill last Friday and that one in particular, who says that he does not believe in a multicultural society and revels in his rejection of it, can undermine such an important measure. I hope that the Government will bring forward their own proposals if I cannot make progress with the Bill. That is the sort of thing that we have to do because the present arrangements discriminate against Muslims in particular. I hope that the Government will see fit to legislate, if I cannot get my Bill through.

Education is also important. There are a plethora of schools in my constituency, serving not only the Jewish community but every branch of the Christian faith. However, if we are to have religious schools, it is only fair that Muslim children and parents should have the same opportunity to go to the schools of their choice. Although dozens of schools cater for other faiths, it is regrettable that only one or two schools in the state system cater for the Muslim faith. Similar issues arise when we consider the school curriculum.

I have taken up with the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education the important question of student loans. Being expected to pay interest may be a matter of concern for students of the Muslim faith, although I know that the Minister is discussing the issue with the Muslim Students Association, to see whether there is a way through the problem.

There are social issues, too. My hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North talked about the reform of stamp duty, for example, but one could also mention halal or, in the Jewish faith, shechita. The Farm Animal Welfare Council recommendations pose significant difficulties in that respect, so I am pleased that the Government have indicated that they will not act on them.

My hon. Friend talked about recognising the need for cultural centres. There is a huge demand for a cultural centre for the Muslim community in my constituency. However, trying to get together the different agencies and finding the land and money is proving an insurmountable obstacle, no matter what I try to do to help. My hon. Friend was lucky in that resources were available to build the centre in North Kensington, which my constituents hold up to me as a flagship. They ask, "If they can do it in North Kensington, why can't we do it in Hendon?" That is a good question, to which I am afraid I do not have a sensible answer, other than to recognise the fact that we have significant difficulties. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend says that I am an appalling MP, but let us put that the other way round: she is an excellent MP, for achieving the centre.

Ms Buck

I did not say that; I said, "We're poorer than you." I was not referring to the situation in my hon. Friend's constituency, but merely pointing out that one of the reasons for our success is that some areas in North Kensington have high levels of deprivation and poverty, which has allowed us to lever in sources of funding into the community.

Mr. Dismore

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention. Levering in such funds is a difficult job.

The Muslim community in Hendon is significant and growing. We must try to recognise their needs, but actively engaging the local authority has been difficult. That was even true when we tried to organise a celebration for the Eid festival last year. Little was done, compared with the efforts made to commemorate the festivals of other faiths. We have a long way to go in that respect.

I had intended to talk about poverty and bad housing, but my hon. Friend dealt with those issues extensively and effectively. They are the root causes of many of the difficulties that we face. If we are serious about helping the Muslim community in our country, we must do something about child poverty and the appalling deprivation in which those children grow up. Otherwise, it will not be surprising if we create dissatisfaction in which—to return to my earlier point—extremism can flourish and find recruits. The problem is not confined to London, although it is particularly severe there. The Government must take steps to deal with those serious issues.

10.9 am

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab)

I must also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck). She has consistently campaigned on issues that affect not only the Muslim community, but any community in her constituency or mine that is at the sharp end of deprivation.

This debate is timely, given the publication of Dr. Richard Stone's report on Islamophobia. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) said that it was appropriate to pay a short tribute to Dr. Stone, although I think that it would be appropriate to pay a long tribute. He has worked tirelessly in this field for more than four decades. He has many genuine friends among faith communities and among those of no faith. I believe that he should be able to sit in the House of Lords, but at least we can benefit from his work on Islamophobia.

I have no doubt that Islamophobia impacts negatively on the lives of many of my constituents. The same is true for Muslim communities across Britain. Not only do British Muslims suffer social exclusion; they suffer cultural and financial exclusion. The two largest Muslim communities in Tower Hamlets are from Bangladesh and Somalia. I naturally wish to highlight the situation facing those two groups, although I recognise that other Muslim groups in the United Kingdom—many of them have members living in my constituency—are from countries such as Pakistan, Nigeria, Turkey and Morocco.

In Britain as a whole, 2.7 per cent. of the population is Muslim. In Tower Hamlets, the figure is 36 per cent. Many issues affect the Muslim community. We hear from the media about religious discrimination, hate crime, policing, the criminal justice system, drug misuse, attitudes post 11 September, Islamophobia and so forth. However, I want to concentrate on three issues: housing, education and employment. Everyone should have the right to a roof over their head, a decent education and a job to keep themselves and their families out of poverty. All research shows that the biggest indicator of poverty is households where no one is in employment.

Housing is the most fundamental public service. I was delighted that, in answer to a question that I and others raised recently, the Prime Minister said that in a third Labour term—were there to be one—housing would have to be as important as education and health were when the Labour Government came to power. We have poured a lot of money into housing. For example, the amount of money available for social housing in Tower Hamlets has trebled. I have said repeatedly, however, that that is not enough The extent of overcrowding in Tower Hamlets is horrific. I once took a housing Minister to visit an extended family of 16 people living in two bedrooms. That was the most extreme case, but I am regularly contacted by constituents who live six, seven people to a bedroom. We recognise that the overcrowding standards, which date from the 1930s and were based on 1880s legislation, must be changed.

I and other MPs here this morning, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North, have been campaigning on the issue of overcrowding. I have tried to make clear the link between overcrowding and institutional racism towards the Muslim community, inadvertent though it may be. In Tower Hamlets, Bangladeshi families are 14 times more likely to live in overcrowded housing than white families. The children of Bangladeshi and Somali families are suffering the consequences in terms of their health, education, employment prospects, the problems of family breakdown and the crises that it causes, and the huge levels of depression and mental health issues, which have been raised in various recent reports on the Muslim community All of us can testify to the fact that such problems are widespread. For example, although my evidence is anecdotal, well over three quarters of the people who contact me about overcrowded housing or immigration are suffering from and receiving treatment for depression or other mental health problems.

Although the issue is not specifically in the Minister's brief, I should like her to encourage colleagues in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to ensure that our new standard for tackling overcrowding is ambitious. We also urgently need a programme to free up family- sized accommodation. The Housing Corporation should be encouraged to ensure that its new system of preferred partner registered social landlords leads to more family-sized accommodation.

The situation with education is not all doom and gloom. We have had spectacular successes in Tower Hamlets. Many hon. Members will know, as I have said so many times, that Tower Hamlets has achieved the greatest educational improvements of any borough in the country. That is a great tribute to the teachers, parents, governors and, of course, children. However, an Ofsted report last month showed that a lot more could be done to improve the progress of Bangladeshi teenagers in particular. The report showed that pupils of Bangladeshi heritage were doing better than some other ethnic minorities between key stage 3 and GCSE. The actions that some schools have taken include extra support in learning and using English, adapting the curriculum to make it more relevant to the pupils and their heritage, and working hard to involve parents in school life. I encourage people to have a look at the report's recommendations, particularly on the need to analyse pupils' performance data to track progress and plan appropriate action that is relevant to their needs, and to be versatile and innovative in the range of strategies used to improve Bangladeshi pupils' English language skills.

My final point about education is about race segregation in our schools. The problem is very serious in Tower Hamlets and is bound up with many other issues, including housing and perceived racism. We hear a lot about "white flight", for example, but we also hear from Bangladeshi parents about the isolation of Bangladeshi students, on which I did a documentary in 1998. Many of those students go to a schools where not a single other pupil from a single other ethnic group attends—be it from the white majority ethnic group or the Afro-Caribbean group, for example. Given that London is one of the most diverse cities in the world, what does that say about our theoretical proclamation about diversity and its virtues? We are failing in that area. I learned when doing the documentary how frustrated Bangladeshi parents are. They told me that their children had to survive in mainstream society and that they did not want them ghettoised, but that many never met white children. Their parents felt that the educational establishment was isolating and marginalising their children.

There is obviously a direct link between that and employment. The employment rate in Tower Hamlets among the white community of working age is 73 per cent., whereas among the Bangladeshi community of working age it is only 33 per cent. That 40 per cent. differential leads to many other differences in later life. We need to address the problem of children being brought up in workless households I recently worked on child care provision and the problem of how we reach Asian women, should they wish to overcome the many barriers that prevent them from entering the labour market. We need to ensure that appropriate child care is available to them. In a recent big conversation event in my constituency, which I arranged, the Asian women, who were all Bengali, said that their greatest problem was that child care was not affordable. As a result, they see no prospect of being able to enter the labour market.

We heard about the need for Muslim communities to have community centres. We have had an astonishing success in Tower Hamlets with the new London Muslim centre, and the Muslim community deserves full credit for being responsible for opening one of the largest centres of that kind in western Europe. Prince Charles attended the opening, which was held the week before last. The centre caters for 10,000 to 15,000 worshippers. One of its aims is to teach women and young people the job skills that they lack and how to balance work with other roles.

Representatives of the centre say that they hope to improve dialogue between Islam and other faiths, which is desperately needed. Sheikh Abdur-Rahman al-Sudais from Saudi Arabia, the very respected imam of the Ka'ba, Islam's holiest mosque in Mecca, who came to open the centre, said:

Muslims should remember that throughout this long history Islam has carried the message of building communities, not isolating themselves. I hope that education professionals will heed his advice when we draw up education policy and consider ways of breaking down barriers and reducing segregation. I should also say that the block of buildings that house the new centre includes one of the east end's oldest synagogues, which was built in 1899. In the spirit of Dr. Richard Stone's launch of the organisation Alif-Aleph last night, I hope that we will continue to build relationships and bridges between, for example, the Muslim and Jewish communities.

Members of the Somali community in Tower Hamlets face many of the problems faced by other residents, including poor housing, low employment, poor access to education, antisocial behaviour and drug misuse. I stress, however, that their problems are made so much worse by the fact that the immigration status of many of them often prevents them from accessing mainstream services. I confess that what has distressed me the most as a Member of Parliament is seeing members of the Somali community entirely isolated, in almost all senses of the word, and prevented from accessing mainstream life and services.

Many of the women in the Somali community are single parents, which points to a very sharp difference between them and the Muslim community. Some have lost their husbands in war; others have suffered breakdowns in their relationships. Many have left children behind, or their children have been killed. The Somalis who are granted leave to remain in the UK find it difficult to access English classes and work. Those who are refused access are left destitute with no access to work, to housing or to benefits. Perhaps they are concerned that they will have no access to health care in the future either, although I hope that the Minister will ensure that that does not happen. Disability is a huge issue in the Somali community. Somalia has no Government, no services and no transport. It is not a country that we would recognise as a state. People have been dispossessed in every conceivable way. My plea to the Minister is that she will consider asking her Department to look into the problems of the Somali community and clarify for that community some of its fears over recent announcements about deportations and returns to Somalia, given the situation there. That practice is wholly inappropriate at present.

I would like to thank the hon. Members who have taken the time to be here for this debate, and to mention again the levels of deprivation affecting the Muslim community. However, I want to end on a positive note. I do not think that there are any children brighter and more eager to learn than the children in Tower Hamlets, the majority of whom, in many areas, are Muslim. I know that the Government will want to give them the opportunities that they deserve.

10.26 am
Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD)

I too congratulate the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) on securing this vital and timely debate, and I am glad to be able to respond on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. I represent a constituency with a large Muslim population.

In preparing for the debate I trawled through some statements made by the Home Secretary, the Minister and the Prime Minister. Their words were reassuring and I have no doubt about the genuineness of the Ministers' sentiments and of statements such as these:

Expression of religious freedom is a core British belief", Mosques play an important role in community cohesion and civil renewal", and

Many faiths build one nation". The problem is that when I speak to Muslims in my constituency and organisations that campaign on behalf of Muslims they tell me that the actions do not match the words.

I shall quote a statement made by the Muslim Council of Britain in 2003:

It is the view of the Muslim Council of Britain that very little progress has been made in tackling the horror of Islamophobia in the United Kingdom since it was brought into sharp focus by the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia in its report published in 1997. The statement continues:

we strongly feel that the government has done little to discharge its responsibilities under international law to protect its Muslim citizens and residents from discrimination, vilification, harassment, and deprivation. Others have spoken of progress that has been made, but clearly to the Muslim Council of Britain an enormous amount still needs to be done.

Others have spoken eloquently today on social exclusion issues—particularly the hon. Members for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) and for Regent's Park and Kensington, North. However, when I speak to Muslims, the No. 1 issue that they raise is antiterrorism legislation—particularly section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 and the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001.

Searches of individuals suspected of terrorist offences rose from just over 10,000 in 2001–02 to more than 32,000 in 2002–03, which is an increase of more than 200 per cent. The vast majority of those stopped were in London, but just 1 per cent. of those stopped and searched under section 44 were arrested, compared with a 13 per cent. arrest rate for stops under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, suggesting that section 44 is being used indiscriminately. The Home Office is not doing any kind of ethnic monitoring of that, and given the impact on the Muslim community, that is of grave concern. The indiscriminate and unmonitored use of stop and search powers contradicts the recommendations of the Macpherson report that powers should be used only proportionately and on suspicion that an offence has been committed. I urge extreme caution in the use of section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000.

The imprisonment without trial of terror suspects at Belmarsh under the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act has also provoked widespread anger. The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) says that there are enormous differences between Belmarsh and Guantanamo bay, and there are, thank goodness, but people's human rights are still being flouted. It is a basic human right that people should be given a fair trial and either released or, if they have committed an offence, imprisoned. Given the backdrop of the war on terror and the attack on Iraq, which many Muslims perceive, rightly or wrongly as an attack on Islam, we must understand that they see terrorism legislation as a direct attack on them.

Mr. Dismore

Before the hon. Lady moves on from the issue of detention at Belmarsh, I should say that there is no great difference between us in principle. In my view, we need to put people on trial, but only once have we amended the law on evidence. However, is she saying that the people in Belmarsh—particularly Abu Qatada—should be released immediately?

Sarah Teather

The Home Office needs to consider a variety of options for dealing with the problem, because the present solution is simply not an acceptable long-term way of dealing with terrorism. [Interruption.] I am not going to comment on a specific case; that would be highly inappropriate. The Joint Committee on Human Rights is currently considering other options, which I hope will be widely debated and implemented when they are made public. However, the Liberal Democrats opposed the extension of the present powers because, as the Government said when they introduced them, they were intended to be a short-term measure. Clearly, they are no longer a short-term measure, but a long-term one.

When Muslims are tried in a court of law, there is a widespread feeling that justice is not done in an even-handed way. Following the appalling riots in Bradford in 2001, the Institute of Race Relations found a huge discrepancy between the sentences handed out to the Manningham rioters and those handed out to rioters from a neighbouring estate. It was concerned that the sentences were designed not to reflect

the severity of each individual's actions but

to discipline an entire community".

Those words are frightening, and I have heard them used by others who have talked about the terrorism legislation.

There are similar concerns about racism in prisons, and the failure to act appears to have led to the murder of the British Muslim, Zahid Mubarak, in his cell. I accept that there has been enormous progress in prisons, but there is still considerable work to be done.

The hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North discussed attacks on Muslims, and there is widespread concern about how the media report the arrests of Muslims under the Terrorism Act. The hon. Member for Hendon talked about Muslims' feeling that they must always distance themselves from extremists and about how their expectations differ from those of other members of the community. Many of those issues underline the need for an equality Bill. Discrimination on the grounds of religion is being outlawed in employment, but as others have mentioned, it has still not been outlawed in other areas of service provision. We on the Liberal Democrat Benches argued strongly for the Bill introduced in the other place, which was the subject of widespread cross-party agreement, but, unfortunately, the Government did not support it. They have agreed to merge the Commission for Racial Equality, the Disability Rights Commission and the Equal Opportunities Commission, and that is welcome, but what do they intend to do to bring together all the piecemeal discrimination legislation?

Other hon. Members have discussed the deprivation figures, which are startling. Muslim children account for about a third of the children living in workless households—twice the number for white British children. The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow, who is not in her seat at the moment, talked about the problem of overcrowding, and I certainly empathise, given the situation in my constituency. Tragically, it is typical to find eight people living in a two-bedroomed flat; such cases are not among the worst. That is why so much more work needs to be done. Similarly, three quarters of Bangladeshi and Pakistani children live in households receiving less than the national average wage and 54 per cent. of them are in homes that are on income support. There are much lower rates of employment among Pakistani and Bangladeshi men, and the average earnings of Muslim risen are 68 per cent. of those of non-Muslims. That is staggering.

The hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North discussed the fact that fewer Muslims are represented in the new deal than might be expected. There is an argument for much more individualised programmes to deal with specific problems; that is much more likely to get people back into work.

Poor health has also been mentioned, which is so often associated with poor housing. The two are dramatically interlinked. Whore there are overcrowding, poor health and poverty, there is often also educational under-achievement I am delighted to hear that there has been so much improvement in Tower Hamlets. However, the statistics are still very worrying. Particularly significant is the widening gap in performance between boys and girls of Pakistani origin. Just 34 per cent. of boys of Pakistani origin achieve five grades A to C at GCSE, whereas 48 per cent. of girls do so. Both those figures are way below the national average.

A report published earlier this month drew attention to problems in education, and said that the state sector was failing Muslim children. The solution is controversial across the House—hon. Members of all parties support faith schools, while others adamantly oppose them. Regardless of one's view the issue has to be addressed. Many of the problems can be tackled by improving housing and health, but that is not the only solution. I should be interested to know what the Government intend to do specifically to target the under-achievement of Muslim children.

I am pleased to hear that the Minister will be discussing student loans with the Federation of Student Islamic Societies in the UK and Ireland, but I wonder whether a simpler solution would be to abolish the dramatic increase in the burden of debt by voting against the Higher Education Bill on Wednesday.

We have all mentioned discrimination and social exclusion, but I want to close on a more positive note. I do not want to leave hon. Members with the impression that Muslims are passive victims. Those of us who represent constituencies with large Muslim populations know that that is not true. We know of the contributions that individual Muslims, local mosques and community centres make. The many organisations that have been mentioned today represent the expression of the best of Islam in this country. The Al-Khoei foundation in my constituency, with its academic, diplomatic and educational work, is the embodiment of Islamic values, tolerance and inclusiveness; the political campaigning of the Muslim Association of Britain, the Muslim Council of Britain and the Muslim Public Affairs Committee is the expression of Islam's passionate fight for social justice and fairness; the supportive work of the An-Nisa society in Brent shows Islam's emphasis on compassion and mercy; and organisations such as Alif-Aleph bring British Muslims and Jews together to demonstrate Islam's meaning of peace.

Perhaps the injustice in this country is not only that suffered by Muslims but the fact that society is unable to benefit from what individuals and communities have to offer.

10.39 am
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con)

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) on having introduced the debate. Without exception, speakers have contributed to it sensibly and thoughtfully. It is an example of how useful these debates can be.

Many organisations with which I am associated, both secular and Christian, are beginning to come to terms with the issue in a way that they have not been in the past. Overwhelmingly, they want to show respect and to deal with the subject positively, and I think that they hope for a reciprocal response. The terms of the hon. Lady's debate rightly drew a distinction between discrimination and disadvantage. The first is a matter primarily of law; the second is a complex matter—a mix of public policy and private sector and personal responsibilities.

Over a period of years, I have become interested for a variety of reasons in equality issues. I welcome debating with the Minister in due course the establishment of the single equality commission. It is clearly important that we should have a statement in law about what is or is not discrimination and what is or is not acceptable. We should also remember in the process of legislating that it does not by itself achieve the means of redress. That means of redress may be set out in law, but people have to have access to it and not be frightened of using it. We should also recognise that ethnicity is not the sole source of discrimination; there can often be overlapping issues. Particularly in relation to Muslim communities, there may well be gender and disability issues. It is not a matter of a one-shot approach.

So far, I have been talking on a personal level. However, on an institutional level, there is obviously also work to be done. Anybody who has read the Lawrence report knows that the concept of institutionalised racism or, more generally, institutionalised discrimination has to be faced. I do not think that it is an easy concept to tackle. To start to tackle it requires firm leadership from the top to show that such practices are not acceptable; to show an emphasis on professionalism, which makes it clear, for example, that it is bad policing if one is prepared to deal with the problems of citizen A but to disregard the problems of citizen B, whatever their elements of difference; and to show a readiness to drive on with such actions and to uproot a massive cultural flaw, of which we still see examples. On the discrimination agenda, I think that we can all easily be at one in saying that such practices are not acceptable, that they need to be tackled and that they need to be tackled effectively.

Disadvantage is clearly a more complex issue. That is not to understate it or in any sense to diminish it. I will pay the Government the compliment of quoting from their "Strength in Diversity" document. I entirely concur with that title as a broad aspiration; I think that we all would. As it states in chapter 4, the fact is that

67 per cent. of people from Black and minority ethnic communities live in the 88 most deprived districts in England, compared to 37 per cent. of the white population. In round terms, that is two thirds compared with one third. That is a heavy loading of deprivation which we should accept as being the case.

There will always be differences of interpretation, and I would give some measure of qualification. The first point is the historic one: anybody who considers discrimination issues or equality issues over the years realises that simply legislating does not make the problems go away. We need only to look at equal pay, for example. It will take a very long time without other actions for the legislation and its intention to come together.

We should also remember that some of the population, particularly those who are relatively newly arrived, may live in conditions that are significantly better than those of other members of their family who live in their origin countries. Of course, at the same time, it is highly difficult, as the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) said, if people live in gross comparative or relative deprivation in this country compared with other citizens or neighbours. There are welcome signs of social mobility, and that must be right. I think that we would all accept that the Government, the council, cannot do everything. We need to consider what we can do.

I turn specifically to some of the Muslim community issues. First, we should realise that there is an association with deprivation. There is no point in arguing about that. I do not want to turn this into an example of victim culture. It is right not to wish away or pretend away the issue of lslamophobia, particularly after 9/11—it is a horrible by-product of that horrible event—but it should not drive the Muslim communities into a shell from which they will not be prepared to emerge in dialogue There is also a need for strong public policies about asylum seekers, for example, so that we know who is here, and so that the stuff that appears in tabloid papers without justification can be exposed, because we have control of the situation—but that is a debate for another occasion.

Secondly, there is a strong element of ignorance throughout the majority of the country. My constituency has very low ethnicity; that does not mean that the problem does not exist in rural areas, as the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) rightly reminded us, but it does mean that people do not focus on it, although that does not make it any less unacceptable. It also means that some of the things going on in our cities that have great positive elements—as well as creating problems; there are opportunities as well as difficulties—are completely overlooked. We must work hard to start joining up the public dialogue.

One case that I will mention to the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow concerns a school in her constituency, which, through an organisation with which I am involves, the Country Trust, sees what goes on in the country. Those exchanges need to work both ways and to be developed. They should form part of the public debate, because it is our country in the rural areas as it is in the towns and it is just as much the country of her constituents as it is that of mine.

Thirdly, we need to appreciate the complexity of Muslim communities and their histories. This year, for various reasons, I have had to deal with the parents—who are, incidentally, Christian—of a Caucasian supporter of Hizb ut-Tahrir, who is imprisoned in Cairo. That is interesting, not least because of the nature of the representations and support that he has received.

Equally, we have communities such as the Dawoodi Bohra, which is prepared to have international conferences, with which I have had constructive discussions. I will be participating in its conference. Therefore, we should not see these issues as simple and as having one answer, but should, in a sense, rejoice at the complexity and the opportunities offered.

I want to pick up briefly on a point about education: the English language is extremely important in that respect, as is the engagement of women in the education process, although it is difficult culturally. It is also important to acknowledge the historic role of education in enabling people from disadvantaged communities to work their way up through the system. I personally would like more after-school facilities for Muslim faith education in schools, rather than the setting up of separate madrassahs, which may send the wrong signals. Regeneration is clearly important, although I want it to be on a human scale rather than the "big bang", which does lot work.

We should remember that these are new communities, which often have practical needs such as the need for a place of worship, or the need for sensitive treatment of the bodies of the dead, as with the new certification system for coroner s. We know that we need to make changes, but they must be practical. I was interested to hear about bodies being taken into church with the agreement of everyone involved. That may be an example of the way in which communities can help each other. Civic involvement has not been mentioned yet. We need to ensure that there are more Muslim councillors and parliamentary candidates joining our debates.

"Strength in Diversity" is a tentative and modest document; it is good that the Government are being modest. The document touches on many areas of concern, but I want to make two points more clearly than it perhaps does—no doubt, the Minister will disagree. The first point is about the involvement of the commercial private sector. We need people to employ Muslims. We need banks—clearing banks, for example—to be representative of the communities that they seek to serve, and to have a sensitive attitude to interests. All those things can be managed, and are being tackled. We also need the sector to work actively in local regeneration.

Secondly, part of the underlying change that is coming about is the development of civic society at all levels, including the political. It is a matter of getting voluntary organisations in the Muslim communities to talk to their counterparts. Young people should talk together, not in order to proselytise or convert one another but simply to share their problems and experiences. If we are to tackle the problem, it is important that we reach out for our common humanity, that we respect each other's traditions, including faith traditions, and that we make ourselves comfortable with living together in one country—whict we are very lucky to do.

10.50 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Fiona Mactaggart)

The irony of these debates is that I am asked many questions but never have as much time as everyone else when it comes to answering them. None the less, I shall gallop ahead.

I echo the kind remarks made about Richard Stone. He is a star. He has been a friend of mine for a long time, and he makes a substantial contribution to intelligence and tolerance in Britain today.

It might be helpful for me to make my response to the debate in the context of the Government's paper "Strength in Diversity". For a Government paper, it is surprisingly tentative; it poses 13 questions rather than giving millions of answers. It organises them in categories: inclusive citizenship, identity in belonging, eradicating racism and extremism, tackling inequality, opening opportunities and building cohesive communities. All those subjects were raised during the debate.

I shall put the contributions to the debate towards the Government's consultation on our race equality strategy. When we produce it, I promise that the solutions will be underpinned by clear levers for delivery. It has been said that we need to ensure that our ambitions are turned into reality with straightforward practical measures, ranging from uniforms that allow police officers to wear a turban or a hijab, to prayer rooms in prisons. Such measures are at the heart of providing a genuinely equal society.

I shall answer first the questions raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck). Her overall theme was of discrimination and disadvantage. The Government recognise that Muslim communities, particularly those in our inner cities, have experienced more discrimination and disadvantage than other groups. However, I would argue that that is probably not because they are Muslim. That is important. The experiences of Muslims with an Indian background are different from those with Pakistani or Bangladeshi backgrounds. Household income and the likelihood of living in disadvantage are different. It is important to separate the factors that contribute to those disadvantages, and to ensure that we tackle them.

The other issue raised by my hon. Friend is the way in which matters such as policing can make a community feel victimised. The subject was raised by several hon. Members. We clearly need to prevent disproportionality in the use of stop and search powers, and all stop and searches should be recorded. We have established a stop and search action team to help Departments to take action to reduce disproportionality and to increase community confidence in the use of the power.

With the help of the action team, we are developing a circular to advise the police on the use of section 44 powers. In doing so, we consulted closely with Muslim community organisations. We have established pilot schemes, and we will ensure that monitoring of all stop and search powers, including those under section 44, will shortly be in place. It is not right that people should not know how a power ought to be used; nor is it right that a community should suffer a lack of confidence because it feels targeted.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North pointed out, we need to ensure that work across Government is informed by our commitment to eradicate racism and Islamophobia. That is one of the reasons for publishing "Strength in Diversity"—as a way of working towards a race equality strategy to inform the work of every Department, including, I assure the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams), the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

The hon. Gentleman's point about the experience of isolated minorities in rural areas was a serious one. I am glad to be able to assure him that only yesterday I was talking with civil servants about the issues of insurance in the voluntary sector, and how we shall work with insurance companies to ensure that access to public liability insurance becomes fairer. I believe that that programme will include problems such as those faced by the mosque in his constituency, along with other voluntary organisations.

I join the hon. Gentleman in his condemnation of the extremism of the British National party. "Strength in Diversity" makes a connection in this context. The threat is a dangerous one. Hon. Members have rightly pointed out that the debate that is going on seems to suggest that extremism is of one kind only. The worst and most dangerous extremists in Britain today seem to me to be those associated with the British National party.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) suggested that one way of tackling such issues is to consider legislation to outlaw religious discrimination. We have certainly made progress on the issue of religious discrimination, through the proposal to establish the commission for equality and human rights and through measures under article 13 of the European Union treaty of Amsterdam. However, there is still a debate about the extent to which religious discrimination adds to the disadvantages of minority communities.

I know that there is strong support in the Muslim community for more effective legislative protection. One reason for that is the way in which the courts have interpreted the Race Relations Act 1976, which has in practice given power to the faith communities that are not as racially diverse as the Muslim community, as our discussion has made clear. Therefore, the Muslim community is not protected in the same way as, for example, the Sikh community. We need to continue to focus on that issue, because I am not confident that we have resolved all the problems now arising from it.

We are, however, making progress in increasing the eagerness of the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecute in relevant cases. I have visited local CPS teams to ensure that crimes motivated by religious and race hatred are prosecuted effectively, to ensure that the additional penalties in the legislation can be enforced. There is a greater eagerness to do that, with greater specialisation in some CPS teams, which enables it to work well.

We are making progress on Muslim schools. Six have now been approved. We should remember that only a few years ago a state-funded Muslim school was impossible. Although progress may not be as fast as people want, it is substantial.

My hon. Friend also pointed out difficulties in gaining resources for community centres. I was interested that it was clear from his exchange with my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North that the resources exist in areas of disadvantage; often the issue is finding mechanisms to bring the elements together. A challenge for us as we consider such issues is to create centres that are not exclusive to one faith tradition, but that belong to many.

I was privileged to attend the opening of the east London Muslim centre, although Prince Charles was not—Ronald Reagan's funeral took him away, so we had him there only in video form. It is important to consider how such centres, which are expressions of citizen action, can be used to form connections with other communities.

The progress that has been made in educational achievement in the Muslim communities is significant, but needs to go further. The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) about ghettoisation and single-ethnicity schools is a serious one. If that is what choice leads to, we should perhaps try to ensure that every child, whether they are in Hampshire or Bethnal Green, receives an opportunity to meet people of other faiths and races.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The Chair deplores it when Opposition spokesmen take longer than they should, thus leaving the Minister inadequate time to reply to the debate. I hope that that will be noted, because I deeply regret the fact that the Minister had inadequate time to reply to the many valid points that hon. Members raised.

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