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Integration And Cohesion

April 17, 2007

Integration And Cohesion

 Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) on obtaining this important debate. He has a great interest in such matters. As he rightly said, his is the Conservative-held seat with the largest number of Muslims, and in that as in so many other ways I am second to him as I have a large and diverse Muslim population in my constituency. I am keen to move away in my remarks from dealing exclusively with Islam and Muslim matters, but inevitably they will form part of our discussions both today and in the future.

My hon. Friend made an extremely interesting speech and a 90-minute debate is by no means long enough to address the whole range of issues. However, I wish to touch on some of the aspects that have been mentioned. In addition to my 73,000 residential constituents, some 40,000 non-UK nationals live in my constituency. They range from the wealthiest of business men to some of the most vulnerable asylum seekers?both ends of the spectrum to which my hon. Friend referred. We must also bear in mind the 1 million or so people who visit central London daily either to work or as tourists.

In the borough of Westminster, which also encompasses part of the constituency of the hon. Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), some 56 per cent. of residents were born in the UK, compared with an English average of some 91 per cent. and a London mean of 73 per cent. I fall within the minority, as I was born in a British military hospital outside the UK.

New folk arrive in the area daily, and issues of cohesion and integration are at the forefront of everyone’s mind. People come to this country looking for work, homes and a better life than they would have had from whence they came. Much of the more recent influx has come from eastern Europe. Over the past six months I have had the opportunity on several occasions to speak in and, in fact, lead debates in Westminster Hall on aspects of A8 and A2 nationals coming from eastern and central Europe. Many others have been resident in the area for some time and are now making their way out to homes in other parts of London and the nation at large. I maintain that neighbourliness is alive and well in my part of London. Part of the secret has been the continuation of community identities along the lines that my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe pointed out.

This time last year, the leader of Westminster city council, Simon Milton, launched a one-city vision to create excellent services and stronger communities. He emphasised the importance of taking action over the next five years to ensure that Westminster remains an open and tolerant city. I appreciate that the Government have done much along similar lines and have helped to finance some local initiatives. The Minister will discuss that in her contribution later. My hon. Friend referred to a dichotomy. My view is that initiatives must be community-based. They cannot simply be the result of an ex cathedra judgment of a local or national government but must be very localised if we are to make progress.

We must create a city in which people are linked together by more than geography, and we must stress the importance of building on shared values and aspirations. Elements of that include the importance of English language tuition, which my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) will discuss later. I have always taken the view that public money should not be spent on tuition in other languages but that, as far as possible, an almost limitless fund should be available so that people who come to this country can learn English at the earliest opportunity. A lack of English is the most important potential barrier for those who come to this country. They can make a full contribution, not simply economically but in every other way, if they are able to learn English, and we must encourage that at the earliest opportunity.

We are also keen to engage residents from overseas in the democratic process as a whole, to create a common set of aspirations and to develop representative resident and business associations. I heartily endorse all those local considerations, and I believe that there have been improvements in the social behaviour and tolerance of people living in central London and thus, ultimately, in the integration and cohesion of all those who live in the area that I represent.

I am blessed by having in my constituency a very large Chinese community, which is based mainly in Soho and its surrounds. London’s Chinatown is the traditional heart of the Chinese community in Great Britain. There is also a very large Bangladeshi community in my constituency. In the week of Bangladesh’s national day, I salute the contribution of Bangladeshis to the local communities in south Westminster and in the City of London square mile.

After a few years of residency, many of my constituents feel that they belong to small central London villages. For example, there are no fewer than 30 active residents associations scattered within the seven square miles that make up my constituency. I am convinced that one of the great charms of this part of central London is the fact that so many of its residents care deeply about the neighbourhoods in which they live, and the frenetic activity of many residents associations plays an important role in ensuring that, by and large, we enjoy a high quality of cohesion and integration in our civic life.

However, those same communities feel under attack from the remorseless tales of street violence in London and the seemingly never-ending anxiety about terrorist attacks in the central area. Two of the 7/7 bombs went off at Edgware Road and Aldgate stations, two geographical extremes of my constituency. In the aftermath of the July 2005 terrorist atrocities on and under the streets of London, much national soul-searching has rightly taken place. The question that remains unanswered is how and why modern Britain has bred from its home-grown ranks so many anti-British fanatics. I believe that the notion of multiculturalism that has been promoted in our country in recent decades has been largely discredited. We need to assert the core values of identity, integration and cohesion more strongly. That will be possible only if we embrace this nation’s laws and customs.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe rightly pointed out some of those issues, and I would like to discuss them in more detail. I recognise that other hon. Members wish to speak in this important debate, but I would like to talk about our core values, and about how they have been shaped over centuries to allow us to be a nation of freedom and respect for others.

I take as my starting point Martin Luther’s defiance of the all-powerful Roman Catholic Church, which took place as long ago as 1517 and heralded the Reformation. The importance of those events to the intellectual development of what we may regard as western society and ideas cannot be overstated. Up until that fateful year almost 500 years ago, there had been a universal, established Christian Church that was, like traditional Islam today, intolerant of any dissent to its power. The threat of excommunication was in no wise conducive to independent thinking, scepticism or a broad range of academic and artistic speculation. By chance, within two decades, under King Henry VIII, England had also struck out, so burgeoning intellectual freedom formed the basis of the British state that we understand today. I believe that that freedom has been at the forefront of the vast array of developments in science, the arts, philosophy and political thinking which has moulded western European and global civilisation ever since.

The passion for secular democracy, individual liberty, freedom and equality before the law, religious toleration and pluralism is, I believe, at the heart of what it is to be British. It might be depressing to think this way, but let us make no mistake: those values are not compatible with much of the Islamic teaching that we hear about today. I do not dispute what my hon. Friend had to say about ensuring that the more moderate aspects of Muslim and Islamic thinking are also put across, but it is, I fear, a stark reality that much of that religion’s teaching is incompatible with the values that have grown up in the past 500 years.

Collectively, we in Britain seem to have lost the confidence to assert our sense of identity. Ironically enough, the first wave of post second world war immigrants were in very little doubt as to what Britain stood for. Many of those people were products of British colonial rule and came to settle in what was then regarded as the mother country.

I fundamentally agree with my hon. Friend that it is un-British of us to simply codify our values in law, but we are in a state of flux, not least because of the halfway house of constitutional reform brought about by the Government in the past decade. One reason why we have never had a written constitution in this country and why the Conservatives are instinctively opposed to signing up to one via the European Union is that the English way?we are different from the Scots in some respects?has been for a slow, piecemeal evolution of laws and customs. English law has never been formulated as a coherent set of rules by a body of technical experts. Despite all of the centralising pressures coming from an established Church, academia and an ever more powerful state, our law?the common law?has evolved gradually over time, as have the core values that make us what we are. Unlike other countries, we have not sought to oblige our people to speak the national language, although I appreciate that that is changing; we have not looked at the idea of making a vow of allegiance or of showing some respect to the flag, which is the norm in the United States. Our infinite flexibility is in many ways a wonderful strength. Our customs and values are practical and are based on an ongoing reality so when circumstances change, so too can laws and customs.

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Order. May I ask the hon. Gentleman to realise that two of his colleagues hope to speak and that I want to allow plenty of time for the Minister and the official Opposition spokesman to answer?

Mr. Field: I believed that only one other hon. Member wished to speak and that the winding-up speeches would start at 12 o’clock. Have no fear, Mr. Olner: I do not wish to hog a further 90 minutes, but I take on board what you said.

As I was saying, the rule of law is a particularly British concept. Our society is based on the notion that we all abide by the same rules whatever our wealth or standing. The rule of law is an attractive concept to those from abroad who settle here. Often it stands in stark contrast to what many people from far afield, and indeed many closer to Britain, are accustomed. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe is aware, my mother comes from a part of Germany that is now in Poland. In the first 15 years of her life she lived first under Nazi dictatorship and then under Communist rule before coming to the west and being able to appreciate those values.

Our legal system, however, is very confrontational, and determined to give the defendant a fair trial. I know that we all have concerns about that in relation to terrorism matters, but it is a fundamental truism in terms of what the British legal system exists to achieve, in comparison with many continental systems, which are designed to reveal the truth, and therefore concern themselves with the interests of the state rather than those of the individual.

We are also a secular society, in that our sovereignty resides in the Queen as a constitutional monarch, with Parliament. The British way has never been to appeal to some higher spiritual jurisdiction. Our laws are made exclusively by the Houses of Commons and Lords and interpreted by an independent judiciary. For historical reasons we have an established Church, but no one should make the mistake of thinking that that indicates anything approximating to a theocracy. Pluralism and religious tolerance have been part of the British constitutional settlement since the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

I must confess that as an Englishman from birth and a Londoner all my adult life I believe that many of my opportunities and dreams have no limit. I recognise fully that that is a stark contrast to countless thousands and millions of people in Britain, some of whom are of course in my constituency. Like my hon. Friend I am an optimist and excited by the challenges facing me and our country in a fast-changing global economy. As a man in early middle age I confess that I sometimes envy those half my age and younger. Their dreams and imaginations will be even more expansive than mine. With vision, leadership and a passion for all that the future holds, we live in a world that holds the most exciting of opportunities, which, only a decade or two ago, no one would have imagined. Global travel has become commonplace. In our debates on aircraft and pollution it is important to realise that global travel is one of the most important ways of enabling people to see different cultures and consider the issues of cohesion and integration that we are debating. The opportunity to travel so far abroad is now within the grasp of many people in this country.

Rather than obsessing in debate about multiculturalism we need without delay to counteract the sense of humiliation and grievance, and the culture of victimhood, that has beset so much of the Muslim world and so many young disaffected people growing up in our inner cities. That growing band of disaffected people, who feel that they have in some way been brought up unfairly, and want to strike back angrily at the society that has borne them and nurtured them, has developed its own sense of victimhood, and is independent of much else in society. The new Britons who rail against the society in which they grew up and were educated compare remarkably unfavourably with many immigrants to these shores in the past century, many of whom were escaping horrors in their erstwhile societies. Much of the Arab world has failed to give its young people the political and intellectual leadership that would encourage them to take a more positive path. Meanwhile, we in the west, who have problems among our own young people, should not play up to that culture of historical grievance.

Many parts of the world remain backward, economically and politically, and many of our young people will identify with those failing countries, whether they are in the Arab world, Africa or parts of the Caribbean. I can only imagine how some young people feel now, as perhaps second or third generation British citizens, in a country whose institutions constantly play up to their feelings of discrimination, whether real or imagined. The sense of alienation and humiliation makes, I believe, for a most unstable mix, and for a breeding ground for some of the extreme violence to which my hon. Friend referred.

I believe, as ever, that much hinges on education. I suspect that there will be agreement in the Chamber about that. All our young people need to embrace the history and development of the culture of this country. They need to learn that freedom and fair play have been won after many centuries of pain and railing against a fundamental authority. We must stop apologising for past ills and encourage all our citizens to look forward and rejoice in this country’s lack of restrictions and its ability to give its people self-determination and self-responsibility.