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Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe): On that point, would the hon. Gentleman like to pay tribute to the work of imams in my constituency and throughout the country, who rightly made it clear in the aftermath of 11 September that the actions on that day were in no way representative of the real teachings of Islam?

Mr. Thomas: I pay tribute to the imams in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and endorse his general comments.

The Guardian article continued:

I think that that analysis is perhaps somewhat over the top, but it is undoubtedly true that Muslims in Britain are looking at Members in this place to take further action to tackle the consequences of the religious and racial discrimination that the community continues to experience in Britain. I think that they are right to do so.

It would be useful, for example, if the Press Complaints Commission were to consider how the Muslim community has been reported, especially over the past nine months or so. The new head of the commission might want to undertake that task. I have asked a series of parliamentary questions over the past 18 months about discrimination against Muslims and the Government's response. I welcome the progress that has been made since 1997, but through this debate I hope to encourage the Government to go further.

During the series of articles in The Guardian on the Muslim community, a poll of British Muslim was featured. A third of all Muslims say that they or their families have been abused because of their faith. It is too soon for any analysis to be made of attacks on Muslims since 11 September, but anecdotal evidence of a rise in the number of attacks—especially on visible Muslims such as those wearing traditional dress, for example—has circulated in the media and within the Muslim community. Similarly, anecdotal reports of a rise in vandalism against mosques have been noted.

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I am pleased to say that there have not been significant problems for the local Muslim community in Harrow since 11 September, not least because of the strong partnership that exists between local community organisations, led by Harrow Council for Racial Equality, and the local police. I commend the ongoing work of Asad Omar, who is one of my constituents. He has recently been elected as a local councillor for his leadership in the community. I commend also the leadership of the local police. I hope that such positive partnership working will continue to be encouraged, particularly throughout the Metropolitan police area.

The Runneymede Trust report chronicled the level of racial harassment and violence back in 1997, supporting the intention, now implemented, of new legislation to make racial violence a specific offence. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will outline the further efforts that are being made to bring the perpetrators of racially motivated crime, particularly against Muslims, to justice, and to improve the recruitment of members of the Muslim community into the police and the wider criminal justice system.

The trust recommended even in 1997 that incitement to religious hatred should be made unlawful, and that when sentencing offenders for crimes of violence or harassment, courts should formally treat evidence of religious hatred as an aggravating factor. I welcome the fact that the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 created new religiously aggravated offences including assaults, threatening behaviour and criminal damage, and provided that there should be greater penalties where there is evidence of religious hatred. I hope that my hon. Friend will detail how the courts, police and prosecuting authorities are being trained to use those powers. I welcome the fact that the Act increased the penalty for inciting racial hatred from a maximum of two years to seven years in prison. Like many Labour Members, I was disappointed that the proposal to make incitement to religious hatred an offence had to be dropped from the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act because of opposition in the other place. I welcome the decision by Lord Avebury and my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (John Austin) to reintroduce those provisions in private Members' Bills, which will keep the debate and the argument for the measure moving forward. It is worth restating that similar provisions have existed in Northern Ireland since 1987, and that the Bills would prevent only religious hatred, not comedy or genuine religious debate, as some feared when the proposals were first mooted last year. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will confirm that we remain committed to legislation when time allows.

In its report, the Runnymede Trust chronicled the under-representation of Muslims in political life. The situation has changed since the trust first began its work on the report, with the elections of my hon. Friends the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sarwar) and for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) and the appointment of four new Muslim peers to the House of Lords. I hope that my hon. Friend will join me in welcoming the formation of an all-party friends of Islam group to consider issues of importance to the Muslim community on a cross-party basis. It is essential to take further action to stimulate dialogue and understanding and to encourage active debate between representatives of the Muslim community at all levels of government.

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One issue that the all-party group will want to consider is the extent to which our efforts to modernise and reform public services to make them more client-focused are succeeding in respect of the Muslim community. I hope that my hon. Friend will explain how Muslim organisations, charities, cultural organisations and other independent sector Muslim groups are being invited to work in partnership with Government—for example, to prevent crime and to improve our delivery of health care, education and employment. In its report, the Runnymede Trust undertook a comprehensive examination of the extent to which Britain was making progress towards being an inclusive society for the Muslim community. It highlighted concerns across public services, noting the sharp rise in the number of Muslim men in prison and the fact that unemployment levels for those of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin were considerably higher proportionately than for other people. The trust also highlighted work by the Policy Studies Institute, again noting the relatively greater disadvantage of Pakistani and Bangladeshi families in housing and public health, and called for further research to explore the level of opportunity for Muslims to hold senior staff positions in local government and in the civil service and to be appointed to quangos.

The report also drew attention to examples of where public services could be more finely honed for the Muslim community. To pick out two specific examples, Muslim women often do not use mainstream leisure services as they want to take advantage of women-only sessions and want such sessions to be entirely private. Although providers of leisure services are increasingly providing women-only swimming sessions, some are neither entirely private nor have women lifeguards. What may seem to many outside the House to be trivial concerns are of considerable importance to the Muslim community, who are as a result unable to partake of such mainstream services. It would not take a rocket scientist to address that issue, and more effective dialogue with the Muslim community could produce improvements to services from which all women would benefit.

Another example concerns the burial of Muslims. Islam requires the early burial of a dead relative, ideally within 24 hours. Most local authority cemeteries are geared up for speedy burials during the traditional working week, but the facility to provide early burial at weekends is much more problematic and patchy. Local authorities with significant Muslim communities need to be encouraged to consider how such issues can be considered further. Perhaps the Government might encourage local government, through the best value process, to consider the issues in more detail in those areas where there are significant Muslim communities. I also hope that my hon. Friend can say what preparations are being made to implement the welcome EC employment directive outlawing discrimination in employment and training on the grounds of religion.

Lastly, will my hon. Friend consider, in the reviews of planning law, whether proposals for new mosques, or extensions to mosques, can be dealt with more appropriately, so that the needs of local communities and worshippers are addressed effectively? We need to ensure that proposals for mosques do not become the source of tension within communities. Of course licensing should properly reflect the needs of neighbours, but it must also reflect the observance of key religious traditions.

Since my election to the House, I have seen it as my role to speak up for the people of Harrow, West; to raise key local concerns about public services; to resist

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proposals that will have a damaging impact on my constituency; and to raise wider concerns about the Government's work. Members of the Muslim community in my constituency have raised those concerns with me, and it is right that they have an airing in the House. I look forward to my hon. Friend's response.

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