17 Jul 2001 : Column 1WH

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 17 July 2001

[Sir Alan Haselhurst in the Chair]

Urban Community Relations

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

9.30 am

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I am grateful for the opportunity to have such a debate, but I am not happy that we are having to hold it at the end of this summer term. Given the short time that is allowed for response to a Home Secretary's statement, it is however timely to have a more considered view of the events of the past few months, hence this debate on community relations and unrest in our urban communities. I hope that it encourages support for leaders in urban Britain as well as encouraging us to listen to each other and hear the messages that come from towns and cities where, all too sadly in recent weeks and months, there has been local unrest.

Later today, the Conservative party will choose the two people who will go forward to its wider membership for its leadership election. That causes me to reflect on the fact that it matters to people in urban communities—indeed, in all our communities—not so much who the political leaders are, but what they do. During the 18 Tory years when many of us were critical of some of that party's policies, many of which did not work, it would be fair to say that some of its statements of intent would, however, apply equally well today. One of the most widely quoted, but often ridiculed, statements by Lady Thatcher, when she was Prime Minister, related to our urban communities. When she quoted the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, many people reacted as though they did not believe that that really was what she aspired to achieve. The prayer's core message was about bringing harmony and unity out of discord. I want this debate to achieve that, too.

My political background is appropriate to this debate in two respects. I was born and brought up in the north-west, on the outskirts of Manchester in what is now the borough of Stockport—the constituency that was recently won back for the Liberal Democrats by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Patsy Calton). In those days, not long after the end of the war, the regeneration of Britain was a key issue in Manchester. When I came to London after having been a student, I settled in the constituency that I am now proud to represent. I was driven into active party politics more by a sense of urban dereliction, decay and frustration than anything else. I was a youth leader. Young people and their families felt so frustrated by their powerlessness within the system that they had little hope for the future. Those facts led me to make the contribution that I have made as a Member of Parliament. I feel very strongly about these issues.

Recent written commentary in many newspapers—the think pieces—have often been helpful. Some television and radio commentaries have not.

17 Jul 2001 : Column 2WH

Immediately after the events in Burnley, Bradford, Oldham and elsewhere, the press fell into the easy trap of exaggerating the disorder, trouble and problems and looking for people with extreme views to make the position seem worse, which is positively unhelpful. In contrast, over the following weekends, some helpful and perceptive comments were made, including one reported in The Observer by someone clearly of Asian background, called Faisal Islam, who said:

Around the Chamber are colleagues from places such as Stoke-on-Trent, Sheffield, Keighley and so on who, like me, live in such communities all the time and will speak with possibly just as much understanding and experience as I do.

A perceptive analysis of what is often over-simplified as a racial divide was also provided by Yasmin Alibhai Brown last week in The Independent, who referred to the identity crisis of both many Asian youths and many white youths. Asian men are not accepted as British by this country's white culture but are chastised as too British by their own families. I have experience of young Asians in exactly that position—not fully accepted by the white community and rejected by their own community. Many white youths feel equally detached and alienated from the society for which they are supposedly standing up against foreign cultures. Yasmin Alibhai Brown writes:

I do not pretend that that is an entire analysis, but it is a perceptive one of some of the issues involved.

When we debated the Home Secretary's last statement, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) sidled up to me and said that we must not paint a picture that suggests that burning cars happens only in big cities such as Bradford, Leeds or Manchester. He said that in a constituency such as his, which has only small, ex-mining towns as well as a rural community, such activity is equally common at weekends in the rundown estates.

Two years ago we had our own party leadership election, and those of us involved went around the country to meet our members. I visited an estate on the outskirts of Rotherham that was God's neglected territory. It was absolutely grim. Every property seemed

17 Jul 2001 : Column 3WH

to have been damaged in some way. Every fence had been pulled down, and cars and rubbish littered the street. No sense of community pride was possible. I drew the tragic conclusion that I have had to draw regularly and that the year's events confirm: in many places in north and south Britain, north and south England and the midlands, especially in inner-city and outer estates, people believe that opportunity and accessibility to a decent life are passing them by. The places are sometimes reservoirs of almost entire hopelessness, and escape is the only way for people to better themselves. I am sad that that is still the case in our rich country, and I have a sense of anger and urgency that unless we deal with the matter more effectively, we will lay out for ourselves not treasures on earth but major problems such as those we have seen over recent weeks.

This summer, part of my community, which is just two or three miles from here, has also been on the edge of severe community difficulties. Happily, a combination of factors has kept things quiet. However, a lack of belief in the fairness of the housing allocation system, a lack of belief in the opportunities offered, a lack of belief in the fairness of the police, lack of respect for other people, intolerance of one's neighbour, or a small community dispute can turn a community that has lived adequately but tensely into a place where suddenly cameras and newspapers report civil unrest.

We must clearly and publicly pay tribute to our colleagues of all parties in public office who seek to lead communities in cities such as Bradford and Stoke-on-Trent, and towns such as Burnley and Oldham. We must remember that many people do an extremely good job seeking to lead and to bring communities together. Before the difficulties of this summer, all those places had commissioned reports on how better to go forward. That was the case in Bradford with the well-publicised report by Lord Herman Ouseley, and also in places such as Oldham and Burnley. I am grateful to all the colleagues to whom I have spoken in those places, and in Leeds, for their wise advice and intelligent analysis of what is needed.

Councillor Richard Knowles, the leader of Oldham metropolitan borough council, makes it clear that there are no instant solutions and that the increase in sporadic acts of violence was not necessarily racially motivated. The root cause is the high degree of segregation and deprivation, and the fact that much of Oldham is economically depressed with a low-wage economy. There is a major housing problem. Most of the Asian families live in privately owned housing and have not benefited from regeneration funds in the same way as estates that are predominantly occupied by white residents. There has been huge segregation over the years, and the community leaders in the places that we are discussing say similar things, although each place has local issues. There has been increased segregation in education because some schools are almost entirely white and others are almost entirely Asian. That repeats on itself and encourages people to reinforce it when they apply for school places.

I talked to Councillor Gordon Birtwistle, who is the Liberal Democrat leader in Burnley. He said that many of the larger problems escalated from individual small criminal acts. Funding has been used in geographically

17 Jul 2001 : Column 4WH

defined areas meaning that people who live in other areas feel that they have not shared the benefit. If one racial group predominantly inhabits the areas where the funding has been used, that produces a sense of alienation and marginalisation, which, in time, is fertile ground for agitation. If Government interest is generated as a response to disorder but people feel that the Government are not consistently interested, the feeling will grow that there is support only with publicity, and that support recedes without it.

My colleague, Councillor Jeanette Sutherland, who leads the Liberal Democrat group in Bradford, where there is no overall control on the city council, makes it clear how much we must be careful not to undermine all the good work that is continuing. We must not make it sound as if Bradford is a city that is entirely full of hopelessness, agitation, community difficulty and despair. The message is the same—"Please don't generalise. Please look at our particular problems. Please keep a continuing interest."

I therefore want to suggest what might be the right response. Clearly, we must say together that criminal activity is unacceptable. Unless we say that, we are immediately in difficulty. It may be understandable sometimes, but it is clearly unacceptable. Together, we must seek to dissuade those who are motivated to act in that way from doing so again. The issues become slightly more complex beyond the debate about criminality.

First, we must reinforce the idea that, in every case, solutions will be arrived at best at local community level. Building blocks must be established at that level, and local people must own and participate in community regeneration. As far as possible, initiatives should be bottom, up not top down. We must be careful to remember that communities can be cheek by jowl yet entirely different. In my constituency, some rich communities are next to some of the poorest communities. To state the obvious, that does not help.

One positive move by the Government would be to facilitate the creation in all our urban areas—in the metropolitan areas, unitary authorities and London boroughs—of the parish and community council network. That happens throughout the rest of the country—it is the building block of our society throughout rural England. As a result, people know more clearly that they can share in the running of a particular place, whereas in urban areas that does not happen. I believe strongly that if we allowed parish and community councils to exist where people who were able to stand for election could speak with authority as the representatives of that community, we would have a much more accepted, acceptable and participatory democratic structure, and a much more organised way of distributing funds and the like.

We need to understand that the crime and disorder partnerships and the local strategic partnerships that the Government created a couple of years ago are extremely good vehicles, although it is early days to see how they are working. However, we must also make sure—a similar message came from all my colleagues—that the funding that comes from central Government does not get split in Whitehall and sent in pockets to different places, depending on who bids best, who knows how to bid best, and who gets their act together most quickly. It must be distributed so that the democratically elected

17 Jul 2001 : Column 5WH

local council, together with the other partners in its local strategic partnerships and in its crime and disorder partnership, can decide, on advice from the community, how best to allocate the funds. There must be much more coherent management of the financial mechanisms for renewal, and I hope that we can move to much less ring-fenced and much more community-led distribution of local finance.

Funding in those areas, whether for economic regeneration, housing renovation or something else, is too often largely reactive and applicant-led. It should be much more proactive, responding to the vision of the community put forward at local level. In an area such as mine, the major issue is the need for more affordable housing, of which we are desperately short, whereas in the north, where housing is in much greater supply, much renovation is needed, as is economic regeneration. It is therefore necessary for design and promotion to be done locally.

We must be honest and admit that regional policy is not working. There is a pull to the south-east, because unemployment is low there in most parts whereas it is high in much of the rest of the country. The south-east economy is overheating. We need more strong strategic levers to encourage business, enterprise, building and development in the areas that most need and can best benefit from that prosperity. I agree with the Prime Minister—it is not simply that the north is less prosperous than the south. There is huge prosperity in the middle of Newcastle, Leeds, Sheffield or Manchester. However, a mile away from the centre of Manchester are some of the worst estates in the whole of Greater Manchester.

We must examine the problem in the context of what the old Department of the Environment called the local urban parishes, the Z scores and so forth. We must identify areas of great deprivation, but understand that a regional policy that encourages regional development away from the south-east is also important.

Nationally, it is coincidental that figures came out last week showing how the Government are doing in achieving their poverty targets. They are not achieving them. Child poverty is still enormous and by the Government's indicators the poverty total is still approximately 14 million people. Where there is great poverty, there is often great inequality. My noble Friend Earl Russell asked a question in the House of Lords the other day about black males under the age of 25. The Minister answered:

If one lives in a community in which the prospect of a job for a certain type of person is half what it is elsewhere, such people are bound to feel thoroughly disadvantaged and disaffected.

We must face the fact that, at local level, the political system is often not working. The current electoral system militates in favour of division and segregation, and against co-operation and participation. Until we learn the lessons learned in other places, we are highly unlikely to increase participation and a sense of

17 Jul 2001 : Column 6WH

empowerment in the political process. We need a properly representative electoral system in which every vote counts. People must have a chance to change the local party in power. Young people must be able to be elected on a ticket of young people's issues and others on one of local or regional issues. Unless people think that they can make a difference politically, they may not even try.

If young people are involved, they are more likely to be positive and work with the grain of the community rather than against it. To achieve that requires many things that we do better in some places than in others, although in many places such things are not done at all well. We need more young people to participate in youth forums and youth parliaments. Some primary schools have mock elections to encourage young people—I participated in one in my borough the other day in which the whole school elected their school council, year by year, in a system much like a parliamentary election.

In addition, other countries offer many more extra-curricular activities than we do. For young people whose prospect of energetic work is reduced, unless we offer the chance of outward bound courses, cadet forces, more sports such as swimming at school, or an active youth service that offers alternatives, they do something of their own choice—they make their own fun. Let us be honest, setting a car alight or smashing a window—as Matthew Parris argued in an article over the weekend—is fun for that age group.

Let us not run away from that self-evident truth. We should work with the grain of the Government Connexions programme for mentoring and careers but also put someone into the top-year primary schools to find out what motivates each child so that they can be supported in that interest. We must go back into secondary schools to find out which pupils are interested in judo, cricket, dance or computers, so that those interests can be developed. We should make the ridiculously neglected and belated change of putting the youth service on a statutory footing.

I put it to the Home Secretary that, welcome though the new Minister is in his co-ordination role—I am absolutely convinced of his integrity and commitment—if we have a Secretary of State responsible for rural policy, we should have one for urban policy, as we did when Michael Heseltine was in the job. Some 80 per cent. of people in this country live in urban and suburban communities, and it is nonsense that we do not have a co-ordinating role at that level for one of the key Departments of State. I hope that that will soon change.

In addition, we need to consider the thorny issues of education admissions policy and new school creation. I understand that the White Paper on education has been delayed until the autumn, not least because of the difficulties created by those issues. I would rather it was deferred and right than rushed through hastily and wrong. My area, unlike that of my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), does not have a co-ordinated school admissions system, so parents run around from school to school rather than choosing a school using a system like that for university entrance. The reality is that bright, motivated parents will do far better for their child than less motivated ones.

Some faith schools do well, but if one allows Christian schools one must allow Sikh or Muslim schools, and such schools may be 90 per cent. Asian. Is that what we

17 Jul 2001 : Column 7WH

want? If it is, as my colleagues in Oldham make clear, we must have many better links between schools and more combined activities in sport, drama and educational activity, so that young people grow up among different faiths, colours, creeds, backgrounds and communities. In that way, pupils from different backgrounds will not be separated from each other when they leave school, but will be integrated and together.

My last substantive point relates to the apparent increased activity of far right organisations. It would be wrong not to pay attention to that. The Government have an equality Act on their agenda, which I urge them to introduce as soon as possible, as it would ensure equal treatment for all people in this country. We must also consider how we might, by policy changes, undermine any agitation by the far right that preys on disaffection and offers simplistic solutions. I am not one of those who believe in proscribing people if I do not agree with their views—down that road is a dangerous outcome. However, scope exists for a sensible collective look at whether, in those places where organisations keep on marching, there may be grounds for giving further powers to alter the day, the route, the time or the frequency of marches, when they cause severe community disruption.

The police arrest and charge people for incitement to racial hatred far too infrequently. I have asked for figures in my recent parliamentary questions, but my sense is that the police almost never take action. I understand why that may be so sometimes, but the number of occasions on which people walk around saying "Pakis out" or "This area for whites" and no action is taken add up to a collective disgrace. I urge the Director of Public Prosecutions and the police to be absolutely clear that that sort of behaviour is incitement to racial hatred and should be dealt with accordingly.

In many of our urban areas there is far too much prejudice. As someone said to me when I was preparing for the debate, and as the Bradford report makes clear, we need to replace communities of prejudice with communities of pride. That means replacing people of prejudice with people of pride. Someone with pride in their possibilities in life, attainment, culture, work and family prospects is far less likely to be prejudiced against their neighbour or the person or community down the road. We can continue to build Britain well together, but the current policies are not sufficient. We must do more and listen to the voices appealing for help every day in some of the most disadvantaged parts of the country.

10 am

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley): I associate myself with all the comments made by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). Clearly, I could not put things better myself because I do not know his area, but his speech also applies to the situations in Bradford and my constituency. Most of my comments will relate to the riots on 7 July in Bradford, which took place within a few miles of my home.

I welcome the report that was published on 11 July by the team led by Lord Ouseley: "Community Pride not Prejudice, making diversity work in Bradford". I should like to place on record my appreciation for Lord

17 Jul 2001 : Column 8WH

Ouseley's work. He has delved into areas of Bradford that had previously been untouched, and I hope that his work has inspired many discussions there. My comments follow 30 years of work and friendship with the Asian community in Keighley, which constitutes a fifth of the Bradford district.

Since I was elected in 1997, I have had many anxieties about the under-achievement of the Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities in my constituency. Last year, Warwick university published a report confirming my worst fears: the Sikh and Hindu communities are doing extremely well, but the indigenous population is not doing so well and the Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities are massively underachieving, both academically and economically. The time has come to ask why.

After lengthy discussions, my view is that the riots were led by a criminal minority responding to fascist taunts. The criminals were supported by hundreds of young Asian men hellbent on causing havoc, mainly for their own community. It is always their own community that suffers. Those young men were also determined to punish police officers and prevent them from carrying out their legitimate duties.

We need to examine why those young Asian men were so keen to join in the criminal activity. Was it because they had little to lose, little else to do and therefore felt that such activity was a way of making their presence felt, as they had not impressed the world or Bradford with anything else? Do they and many other young Asian males in Bradford feel that they have little, if any, stake in the United Kingdom's growing prosperity, which was created by the Government I support? Do those young men feel disaffected, disenfranchised and let down by their country of birth? Do they ask why all the qualifications, good jobs, nice houses and powerful cars seem to go to the whites? That is a rough guide to the attitudes that I have encountered over many years.

Let us consider the causes. There is little point in blaming the situation simply on racism and Islamophobia. We must instead consider in detail what causes the under-achievement that I have mentioned. The main cause is the lack of a good level of English, which stems directly from the established tradition of bringing wives and husbands from the sub-continent who have often had no education and have no English. As a result, the vast majority of Keighley households have only one parent with any English and children go to school speaking only Punjabi or Bangla. That frequently gets children off to a slow start, which can damage their progress and mean that they leave school with few, if any, qualifications. Many cannot get paid work or find only poorly paid jobs.

I should like to suggest some remedies, which I know will be regarded as controversial by many of the self-styled Asian leaders in Bradford. Asian parents should consider arranging marriages for their children with Asian Muslims brought up and educated in the United Kingdom. That would avoid the present importation of poverty into their families and the problems that I mentioned for the next generation when the children go to school, and would also stop the increasing number of cases of young men and women having extremely unhappy and difficult marriages with spouses from the

17 Jul 2001 : Column 9WH

sub-continent with whom they have nothing in common. I have dealt with such cases, and they are a growing problem in Keighley.

Months off school for extended holidays in the sub-continent should be avoided. At the moment, there seems to be little regard for the problems that this can cause. Instead, people in the Asian community could add a week before and after the long summer holiday, because I would be the last person to suggest that they sever their links with the sub-continent.

When possible, English should be used and encouraged in the home in addition to Punjabi and Bangla. Much more should be provided in further education colleges and community centres for non-English speakers by way of high-quality teaching of English as a second language. That should include crèche provision, with the funding coming from both central and local government. Such projects would be much better than channelling finance towards extra policing, as we have seen over the past few weekends. Sponsors should be encouraged to enrol husbands and wives who enter from the sub-continent in full-time English courses.

My most controversial point is one that I have made previously. It has not gone down terribly well, although I have had support from hon. Members. I will repeat what I said, so that I place on record precisely what I mean. If, after possibly five years, we are no nearer to achieving the solutions and ambitions, and the deprivation, with all that flows from it, continues, the Government should consider having an element of English as an entry clearance requirement for husbands and wives who seek permanent settlement. There should be a further requirement for them to take a full-time English course to reach a reasonable level. The conditions should apply to all applicants outside the European Union. My proposals are in line with immigration requirements in many countries, including the United States of America, Canada and the Netherlands.

I should like to examine the "Community Pride not Prejudice" report by Lord Ouseley. I am pleased that he has written that report, which is excellent. Many of his recommendations dovetail into my previous comments, including, for example, his remarks on pages 13 and 14 about other education concerns. Although many of us who have worked with the Asian community over the past 30 years may claim that he says nothing new, it is good to see the comments in print. I hope that it will enlighten debate, particularly for those who have not had the good fortune of a good relationship with our Pakistani and Bangladeshi constituents during the years as I have.

Lord Ouseley's report remarks on the need for understanding between communities, and the fact that everyone must take on board the advantages of integration, for the Asian community in particular. That will be easier to achieve when all members of the Asian community have some grasp of English and when whites and Asians recognise that there can be gain only from all sides living together in peace and understanding. The alternative is a Belfast-like situation in which we will all be the losers, including whites. I have been encouraged to express my views by Lord Ouseley's comments on the

17 Jul 2001 : Column 10WH

He has helped me to overcome my fear of verbal abuse from the so-called leaders among the Asian community and the politically correct whites. Following my experiences in the past few days, I can say that the thought police are alive and well in Bradford.

I should like to finish on a silver lining. The Asian women and children's group in my constituency is doing wonderful things for the women and children of Keighley. Many women who worked with that group are now taking a leading part in their community, and not before time. The sure start experiment is working so well with whites and Asians, especially at Guardhouse in Keighley, to bring together white and Asian children and young mothers—fathers, too. Unfortunately, too little effort is being made in the Bradford district to get whites and Asians to work together.

I visited Greenhead comprehensive school—formerly Greenhead grammar school—in my constituency just before the election, where I met many young, capable Asian women who were completing their A-level courses. They were going on to universities with their parents' approval and enthusiasm.

I mention those aspects of the silver lining, because, as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey said, it is not all doom and gloom. We are moving in the right direction, especially in respect of the projects that I mentioned in Keighley. I apologise for being so parochial, but I only know about the situation in Keighley and, to a certain extent, in Bradford. There is a south-north divide on these issues, with difficulties especially in West Yorkshire.

10.11 am

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): I shall not detain the House for long. In view of events in Stoke-on-Trent at the weekend, I felt that it was important to listen to the debate.

I very much appreciated the important contribution of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) and I thank him for the thoughtful way in which he introduced the debate. My only sadness is about the events that prompted the debate, which should have been held long ago, and that relates to the way in which Parliament operates.

Parliament may seem to be proactive and Back Benchers may have the opportunity in Westminster Hall to listen to a statement or to debate an event that has taken place, but there are few opportunities for hon. Members to shape the debate and perhaps to influence policy and to see that action follows vision. We want Government and Parliament to show the way forward.

I want to put the disturbances in Stoke-on-Trent at the weekend into perspective. There were no serious injuries and the police did an absolutely wonderful job in ensuring that the situation did not escalate. My hon. Friend the Minister will be aware that at the time the Staffordshire police were also responsible for policing the Northern Ireland peace talks in Staffordshire. I thank the police for doing such a good job, in the country as a whole and in individual constituencies.

That brings me to my next point, about how public services are financed. In whatever town or city we live, we all have a vision of people working together for urban regeneration, but to make that vision a reality

17 Jul 2001 : Column 11WH

adequate funding is needed across the board. Throwing money at the problem is not the only answer, but without adequate funding there will be less progress than there could be.

I take this opportunity to ask my hon. Friend the Minister to review the way in which almost 17 per cent. of Staffordshire police funding is spent on police pensions and to look for a means of ironing out through the funding formula the inequalities in the system that are the result of decisions about police funding many years ago.

I was pleased to attend the annual meeting of the North Staffordshire Race Relations Council on Thursday night last week. The many people who attended that wonderful event reflected all strands of society. It was clear that the statutory agencies, the voluntary sector, community leaders and business representatives in our community all have a vision of how we can work together to take the agenda forward. We must look at the mechanisms for doing that. I was interested in the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey's comments about mechanisms. Perhaps we do have a new approach to local government and more opportunities for partnership funding. However, if we do not ensure that there are enough people on the ground with the expertise, skills and commitment to deliver the policies and see them through, we run the risk of seeing a piecemeal and fragmented approach with an initiative here and an initiative there.

I hope that my hon. Friend, in his Home Office co-ordination role and in the working group that I believe he chairs, will bring together the means to implement the new Government policies. If the Government do not deal with the thorny issue of local government finance, the success of the new partnerships will be limited. I know that there is a consultation paper and that the Government will be dealing with the issue from September onwards, but I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider the example of Stoke-on-Trent, which may have lost as much as £5 million in education funding. That loss reduces the ability of community workers to work with young people outside school hours and reduces the opportunities to open schools for wider community purposes once school is out for the day. It is critical that we look at local government finance and ensure that, whatever else we might want to add to an area, we have a baseline of services so that we are able to employ teachers and provide the education that is the foundation on which we build society.

The Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 is a wonderful tool to bring about the equality that we want, and I am confident that my hon. Friend will look at ways to ensure that the provisions of the Act are properly introduced and monitored.

We have the Rogers report on urban regeneration, the regional development agencies and the extra money coming in to many of our most deprived areas for neighbourhood renewal. We have the skeleton of a system that can deliver the services that are needed. If we do not have the mechanisms for delivering the services, the money stays in the pot and is not unlocked; it does not go where it is needed. Members of Parliament have a role in ensuring that all the different agencies, businesses

17 Jul 2001 : Column 12WH

and local partners at community level are properly co-ordinated so that needs are met in the areas concerned. We are in touch with our people and do not need focus groups to tell us what needs to be changed. Given the Cabinet co-ordination that now exists, I hope that we can look at urban regeneration from the angle of community relations to ensure that we develop a genuinely joined-up approach.

My final point concerns citizenship. I have introduced a citizenship award in some schools in my constituency. During the long years of Thatcherism and the last Conservative Government when there was no such thing as community, we did not home grow community leaders for the future. We must use citizenship to bring about a can-do culture, where people, whatever their age and colour can say, "This needs doing. This is how we can do it. This is our vision. This is how we can change our communities."

I want support from the Government for the citizenship project that I have introduced. It is already supported by Britannia building society and the local newspaper. We have a vision. We have the whole issue of neighbourhood renewal, not just for certain communities, but for all our people. We have to find a way of delivering. The Prime Minister is right: it is about delivery—but if we cannot deliver at community level, we cannot bring about the changes that we want to see.

The Minister has a wonderful opportunity in his work at the Home Office to bring all those strands together. I know that the Home Office no longer has responsibility for electoral change but we will receive the report from the Electoral Commission before the end of July. I hope that he will look at that and at the democratic deficit that clearly exists in some parts of the country and see whether we could have some pilot projects, perhaps in an area such as Stoke-on-Trent. It is not about voting in supermarkets, but about building citizens for the future. I hope that he will look at all my suggestions and get back to me in a positive light.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Frank Cook (in the Chair): Order. I think it appropriate to remind all hon. Members that it is normal practice in Westminster Hall to commence the closing Front Bench comments no later than 30 minutes before the termination of the debate. I hope that everyone will bear that in mind.

10.22 am

Mr. Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr): Having made my maiden speech on Friday, I hope that I am in accord with the procedures of the House if I speak today. I apologise for arriving late as I was detained at another meeting. I want to participate in the debate because it is on an important issue.

The disturbances that have taken place in our communities recently are a serious matter, particularly for those of us who represent integrated communities, as I do in Birmingham. It is not just a matter of funding. We must look at how we build up the moral fabric of our societies. Those are the issues that I want to address. Youth service is a particularly important area that needs to be looked at. If the health authorities, the education authorities and the youth services could work together, they could play a vital role. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley)

17 Jul 2001 : Column 13WH

pointed out, Members of Parliament need to play an active role in their constituencies. They have their eyes on the local issues and represent the people of those areas, as do local councillors and representatives on neighbourhood and community forums.

It is important that we do not overlook the issue of the community as a whole. We should consider integration. My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) mentioned assimilation as opposed to integration, an issue that I want to pick up, although perhaps not as blatantly as some of the self-styled community leaders in Keighley.

I came to this country when I was nine and my first language was not English. I was educated at local primary schools and the local comprehensive, and I then ended up in this place. My experience of going through that structure shows that the opportunities are there for all of us.

As my hon. Friend said, the backgrounds of different groups of people are important. The majority come from rural areas—my father came from a rural area in Kashmir. Parental education, particularly that of mothers, is as crucial as education for the children. Further education has a tremendous role to play and the sure start scheme offers a good beginning. Local colleges and the learning and skills councils established by the Government need to play a more active role in reaching into the community. Further education for parents and young adults in problem areas can help to close the gap

I disagree with my hon. Friend's comments about visits to the country of origin. It is important for children to have a feeling for their own identity and culture, but it must happen in a more positive and integrated way. Schools should assist by suggesting projects for children when they go back to their parents' place of origin. Projects should be focused on cultural differences and cultural richness and the trip should be more constructive than simply allowing children to go away for a month's holiday. They should come back with a project and share it with others. That is what integration is all about.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) spoke about the electoral system. It may engage the wrong sort of people as much as the right sort of people. People on the far right have equal claims and the same influences on the environment. We need to engage the whole community and encourage participation in the current political process. That is the important challenge before us.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about racial incitement charges and with my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North about the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000. It should be applied to all people—the ethnic minorities and the far right—who use racist abuse. All should be treated severely. We are here to integrate and work together. Any form of division from any side is deplorable and should not be tolerated by the police.

I accept the point about the low academic achievement of Pakistani and Bengali children. It also applies to the Afro-Caribbean children in my constituency. We need to think about how best to deal with the problem. Involving the parents could be the answer.

17 Jul 2001 : Column 14WH

I hope that I have not taken up too much time in my first contribution to Westminster Hall, but I felt it necessary to say a few words on this important subject.

10.29 am

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): I am grateful to have an opportunity to pick up some of the threads of the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) on securing this debate in such a timely fashion.

I want to discuss the wider context of the debate. It is important at the outset to recognise that the far right have poisoned the debate. They complain that they are deprived of free speech—I do not think that they are but they often deprive the rest of us of free speech. They twist what is said in ways that are unhelpful to the debate. Those of us who fiercely oppose them often end up constrained in what we can say because we know that they will pick up what we have said, twist it and use it against people in wholly destructive ways. Their responsibility in stirring things up should not be forgotten. It is not the most important element but it is a significant factor. It is no coincidence that they have been present at places where fighting has broken out. Other community relations problems are factors in the riots, but elements of the far right have been present at almost every such riot.

I therefore do not agree with the comments of the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer). That is partly because of my fear that the far right will take such comments and say to people, "If you cannot speak English properly you should not be in this country." I know that that is not what the hon. Lady means and I wish that the fear of the far right twisting our remarks did not make it so difficult to have an open debate. I hope that we can have a debate without it being poisoned by those who will twist our words. We visualise that happening and we all fear it.

We need to move beyond thinking about community relations issues purely as ones of race. Anthropologists and sociologists have done much work on that—people such as Claude Lévi-Strauss spoke as far back as the 1950s and 60s about the way in which people identify themselves within communities. Ethnicity can be an element of community relations, as can religion, but they are not essential elements and are not necessarily part of the equation. We see many incidents in the United Kingdom in which ethnicity is not a factor. In Sheffield, for example, we have inter-area gang warfare. It has gone on for years in most cities. It is not a question of race or religion, but is about self-identification and "us against the rest". People express the belief that "Them lot are out to get us and we need to defend ourselves." That dynamic is as old as the hills. Understanding it is important, rather than simply seeing the problem as one of ethnicity or religion.

There are some important elements to consider in terms of how we fight the forces that pull people apart. We should not play into the hands of the far right and over-play the difficulty of the situation. There are problems that need to be managed but we need to be clear and consistent across the political spectrum in expressing our belief that there is an imperative political will to manage them. We need to be clear that we believe positively in a diverse and multicultural society and that

17 Jul 2001 : Column 15WH

we wish to defend that and make it work. At no stage must we give in to those forces that have said, "That is impossible; it cannot happen. The only solution is to separate the communities."

British people are people who live in Britain. It is important to make the lives of British people as positive and beneficial as possible and to make us all into good neighbours who look after each other. We should not define one group as British and another as less than British because of where their parents or relatives came from—or, indeed, where they came from if they married into or joined a British family here, claiming British citizenship and identity. It is important not to give in to the forces of darkness, as it were, but to understand the dynamics and deal with them.

Early intervention is vital. The problems that resulted in the recent riots were trailed long in advance. We could see them coming yet have been like rabbits trapped in the glare of headlights, seeing the problem, being frightened of it but not taking any action until the car hits us. The same was true of the riots of the early 1980s. We see trouble building, read the reports and know that tension is increasing, yet seem incapable of intervening early in a way that could effectively prevent it.

In some cases, the police start to intervene once trouble has started. I was pleased to hear from the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) that that happened in her area. She also made an important point about the intervention of local authorities. During the summer riots of the early 1980s, when I was a teenager in Sheffield, Sheffield city council put on concerts and a series of youth events as a deliberate way of diverting people from trouble. It worked. People did not riot in Sheffield. Empowering local authorities with sufficient financial discretion, thereby enabling them to say, "We can see it coming. Let us do something about it." would be important. I want councils such as Bradford and Oldham to be confident that, whenever they see signs of trouble, they can intervene, often by spending money, and find ways in which to divert people away from unrest.

The Rogers report on urban structural regeneration is important, but there have been no signs that such information has been picked up. The police should be congratulated, and we all felt for them when we saw what they were being dropped into, as it were. I do not want to force the police into such situations. I want councils to have the ability to intervene early enough so that problems do not result in hundreds of youths and policemen being involved in pitched battles.

I come now to community consultation. We are all aware of the same faces turning up in consultation exercises. Such matters are not confined to ethnic minorities, but involve business and other communities. Consultation exercises draw out committee people and we somehow think that that is enough. We do not make contact with the important people—young people and those from harder to reach communities. We must be serious about such matters and break down language and style barriers. The method of communication used whereby people in suits and ties talk about regeneration budgets and objective 1 or objective 2 status is thought of as rubbish by communities.

17 Jul 2001 : Column 16WH

Too often we settle for the fact that, if someone from the ethnic minorities is a member of the committee, it is a true partnership and matters must okay. The same pattern occurs in the business community. I hope that the Minister can deal with the community consultation issue and support the broadening out of such matters. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey on securing the debate. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response to his substantive points as well as to others that have been raised in the debate.

10.36 am

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): I congratulate the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) on securing the debate and on his thoughtful and constructive introduction. I agree that the problems are national. I disagree with the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), however, when she said that the north had far greater problems than the south. I am the first to acknowledge that northern cities probably have more acute social and racial problems than urban communities in the south, but as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and others know, various London districts have had their troubles in recent years.

A few years ago, there were riots in the Blackbird Leys estate in Oxford. Whether one is thinking of Aylesbury, High Wycombe or Reading, many communities in the south of England have had equivalent problems. It may be that, because of the general prosperity of such areas and the smaller size of the towns, problems will be present but in a less acute and more manageable form than in Bradford, Oldham and Burnley.

My thoughts have been informed by the experience of my constituency, by the visit that I made to Bradford for a day last week and by my conversations with police officers and community leaders in the two years that I have held this brief on behalf of the Conservative party. I want to refer first to police and disorder. If streets are unsafe or if law-abiding people believe that the streets are unsafe, we will have problems and there will be an opportunity for criminal gangs and political extremists to thrive.

The police service in many of our urban areas is badly overstretched. Police officers of all ranks say that there are too many target and performance indicators. They have referred to problems of recruitment and retention, which we have debated in the House many times. There is also doubt among a worryingly large number of officers about what is expected of them when it comes to policing ethnically diverse areas. They often feel beleaguered. I remember one police constable in London saying to me after the publication of the McPherson report, "All my career, I have worked on the basis that I should police impartially and treat everyone alike, regardless of their colour, religion or ethnic origin. Now, suddenly, I am told that that approach is all wrong, and I have to do things differently." We need to understand those uncertainties and address them.

While the police feel beleaguered, it is also the case—I certainly got the impression that this was true in Manningham—that many local people feel that the

17 Jul 2001 : Column 17WH

police service has been slow to respond to their calls for assistance. Too often, low-level disorder, drug dealing, racist abuse and harassment have been allowed to go unchecked. It is only when criminal activity has got more serious that the police have been prepared to crack down in force. People feel the lack of neighbourhood police officers whom they know and trust, and to whom they feel that they can impart confidential information about what is going on in their area. I spoke last week to people in Manningham who said that they only see the police patrolling in vehicles, and that the police seem to have no connection with the neighbourhood. The police officers were horrified at the impression that had grown up, but there was an undoubted gulf of understanding between the service and a large number of residents—by no means just disaffected youths or criminals.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey referred to social problems, to which the hon. Members for Keighley, for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley), for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) and for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Mahmood) also referred. All Members should be concerned when they reflect on the fact that a large number of young men have gone through 11 years or more of full-time education in this country's tax-funded schools and still come out unable to communicate effectively in written or spoken English and lacking the skills to make them employable.

In Bradford and other cities, a fair number of young men are coming out of school unskilled, and can make far more money by carrying heroin round the corner for the local drug dealer than they could hope to earn from any legitimate unskilled occupation. That is not a problem that affects ethnic minorities alone. As other hon. Members have said, it is a problem that is found in estates and cities throughout this country, and it affects people from all ethnic backgrounds. Certainly, recent events have been aggravated by the racial element. It was summed up well in Lord Ouseley's report from Bradford, which states:

While there are good things going on at the Bradford Mela and various local initiatives, to which the hon. Member for Keighley referred, there are also big problems. In February this year, the Home Office published its report on race equality in public services. That made it clear that under-achievement among British Pakistanis and Bangladeshis is a serious challenge. Whereas British Indians seem to be succeeding in formal education, that is not the case with people of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin. Those problems are also true of far too many poor young white men. Those experiences make those groups ready and attractive prey for political extremists of whichever wing.

17 Jul 2001 : Column 18WH

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington): We all understand the argument about educational under-achievement, but does the hon. Gentleman accept that all the evidence shows that even where Afro-Caribbean and Asian young people have exactly the same formal education as young white people, their chances of getting a job are much worse?

Mr. Lidington : There is evidence to support the hon. Lady's contention, but it is a mistake to classify people as either white or from an ethnic minority, because the experiences of people from various ethnic communities are different. In addition, a young white man growing up in a rough area with no family experience of or support for higher education and professional achievement has a hugely different experience from a young white man growing up in a supportive home with role models to demonstrate that he can achieve something in life.

One challenge that we face in integrating young men of Pakistani origin is that although many do not feel at home in their parents' traditionalist culture, they are not welcomed into mainstream British culture either. Hon. Members have spoken about that. I find that feeling among my constituents and I suspect that it is common in most British Pakistani communities. I agree with those who said that the British National party and the National Front—I would add elements of the ultra-left—are only too willing to exploit those real social tensions.

What are the solutions? There are no panaceas or magic wands, but I shall make a number of suggestions. We must ensure that there is effective policing, particularly neighbourhood policing, which means more officers. It also means giving a greater national priority to intelligent patrolling and rigorous consideration of police functions. For example, the booking of suspects into custody could be carried out by a different agency, freeing police officers to go back on duty. We need to cut back on centrally imposed targets and performance indicators.

We must give priority to the teaching of both spoken and written English in our schools. I agree with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr about the importance of helping with the education of mothers from the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities. We do not hear much about the views of British Asian women in such debates.

The hon. Member for Keighley's heart is in the right place, but perhaps the key to achieving her objective is to present opportunities in the English language as just that—opportunities for new Pakistani or Bangladeshi immigrants to play their full part in British society and to allow their children to do the same. They should certainly be encouraged to take part. I agree with the hon. Lady about the problems caused by long absences from school for overseas visits. Local education authorities and head teachers need to tackle that problem.

We need to consider Government spending programmes. Under Governments of both parties and local authorities run by all three parties, we have been spending millions of pounds on what was called section 11 funding but is now called ethnic minority grants. When we find that too many children from ethnic

17 Jul 2001 : Column 19WH

minorities leave school without an adequate command of English and the skills that make them attractive to employers, we must ask ourselves about the effectiveness of some of that spending. Similar questions could be asked about the single regeneration budget. I was told that a lot of money has been spent in Manningham, which caused resentment in areas such as Keighley, but that the people living there did not feel that they had ownership of the projects. They felt that the projects had been imposed from on high.

I agree with the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey in his call for greater decentralisation. We must find ways of tackling the problems at a local level, whether that is the policing of urban areas or sustained action to encourage social and economic regeneration. That will mean a loss of power for Whitehall, but it is only through the empowerment of local people that we will achieve solutions to the deep-seated problems.

10.50 am

The Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs (Mr. John Denham) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) on initiating the debate, and thank the hon. Members for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) and for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) and my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley), for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Mahmood) and for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) for their contributions.

Hon. Members will appreciate that I have limited time to reply to the many issues that have been raised. I hope that that does not matter, because none of us can say that we have a monopoly of wisdom on or all the answers to the issue. The opportunity to have such a debate in which we have wide-ranging, measured and uniformly constructive discussions is enormously helpful, and I will reflect after the debate on the more detailed issues that hon. Members have raised.

I start by placing on record our unequivocal view on the disorders. There can be no excuse for the destruction and violence that we have seen in Burnley, Oldham, Bradford and, albeit on a lesser scale as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North said, Stoke. The communities from which those who are responsible come suffer deep-seated problems, and I will speak about how we can address those. However, throwing stones and petrol bombs at police officers, burning down businesses that are part of the local community and putting people in fear of their lives cannot be justified in any circumstance.

I pay tribute to the work of the police in Greater Manchester, Lancashire, West Yorkshire, Staffordshire and other places for their response to the events. Officers from throughout the north of England have been involved in Bradford and were on the receiving end of attacks that they should not have had to suffer. I repeat my thanks to them and to the other emergency services that handled the difficult problems.

Having said that, I do not want to minimise the malign influence of racism in the events. The work of the far right to inflame and make political capital out of community tensions is wrong. Those who work to set

17 Jul 2001 : Column 20WH

one community against another are attempting to exploit prejudice for their own political interests. It is important that, in addition to the necessary police response to those activities, democratic political parties must ensure that they consistently resist the temptation, not only in Parliament but at every level at which they operate, to give sustenance to those who are involved in those far right activities.

We have heard a lot of talk about the involvement of Asian youths. However, to use the term "Asian" in a broad and loose way causes offence particularly to those members of communities who have not participated in certain recent events. We know that, especially in Bradford, those involved in the disorder included a substantial number of young white males. We must always be careful about our language.

This is not just a matter of addressing problems faced by part or all of the Asian community or of tackling the systematic racism that they undoubtedly face. We must recognise that the people who peddle racist views, whether in an organised or an unco-ordinated way, often find their audiences among an equally alienated group of young white people who also feel excluded from many of the things enjoyed by the rest of society. Whatever else we say, we must agree that the solutions we seek must work for all communities and that all communities must be part of the solution in the months and years ahead.

I should like to touch briefly on a few important areas. First, there is a broader police response than the response to disorder itself. The massive programme of change in the police service set in train by the Stephen Lawrence inquiry is under way and is as necessary as ever. The police are working consistently to build on their response to the needs of policing a diverse community. The Association of Chief Police Officers recently wrote to chief constables all over the country reminding them of the guidance of good practice in policing diverse communities that has been produced over the last couple of years.

We all accept that we must address our response far more widely than just the towns and cities that may have suffered from disorder. There are good reasons not to simply tailor a response to those areas and ignore the needs of others. That would send all the wrong messages. There are many other areas that have much in common with those where there has been disorder. They have high levels of deprivation, pockets of high unemployment, de facto segregation and subsections of the community involved in crime and hard drugs. We will need to look at all those issues.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary told the House last week that a group of Ministers has been established across Government. I chair the group and it has met on three occasions. Our task is to look at the practical help that the Government can give to local communities both in the short and long term. Like other hon. Members, I emphasise that we must help local communities to find their own solutions. Solutions that are imposed from the top will not work. We want to collaborate with local government and other statutory agencies, but also to involve other less formal structures, whether they are neighbourhood forums, faith organisations or other places where local people who are

17 Jul 2001 : Column 21WH

concerned about their communities come forward to demand or take action. We must invest in the capacity of those communities to tackle some of the problems.

While I would not put it forward as the solution, over the summer we are expanding the range of activities that are available for young people, particularly those that bring young people together from different communities. That is an important and immediate response to the needs of many communities across the country. We will be working through the Government offices for the regions to do that. We also need to look at ways to assist local communities and local authorities to promote dialogue and to strengthen democracy. As hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North have said, a lead from local government will be important in leading the way to local solutions.

We are working closely with the Local Government Association, drawing on its knowledge of best practice and what has worked in different parts of the country to strengthen that programme of work. We need to find ways to enable the voices of those who have the least say to be heard. It has often been said that traditional structures in some of the ethnic minority communities do not work as they did in the past. Elders do not automatically represent the younger people. It is equally true that talking to the tenants association on many predominantly white council estates does not automatically put one in touch with the local 16 or 17-year-olds. We have to find voices for all communities, ensuring that young people's voices can be heard.

I acknowledge the need to examine the substantial programme of single regeneration, new deal, community and neighbourhood renewal and other such investment to ensure that we overcome the problems identified by hon. Members today. Those concerns will certainly be included within the work programme of the ministerial group.

Next Section

IndexHome Page