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3.6 pm

The Parliamentary Under–Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Michael Wills): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) on securing the debate. It is clearly an important subject for his constituents and he has shown characteristic diligence and assiduity in pursuing their concerns. However, the subject is important for the country as a whole.

The Government have a clear vision of a multicultural and multifaith Britain; a truly dynamic society that values the contribution made by each of our many diverse communities. We have a pluralistic view of our national identity, in which Muslims and representatives of all communities come together under the broad heading of our British identity. It is vital to ensure that all communities live and work together, and retain their distinctive identities, in an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding. Since the events of 11 September, that vision has been tested in various ways. The hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) rightly stated that those events and those who perpetrated them are in no way representative of Islam, and I want to stress how much the Government agree with him.

British Muslims bring with them a strong and inspiring history of academic, scientific and cultural achievement which enriches all of us in Britain today. There has been a significant Muslim presence in Britain for at least 300 years. Britain's first mosque was established in 1889. The site for the Regent's Park mosque was donated by the British Government in 1944. Today more than 1,000 mosques serve the 2 million or so British Muslims.

It is particularly important that we celebrate the Muslim community's contribution—socially, culturally and economically—to the stability and prosperity of British society. Islam is thriving within Britain as a religion, and many people are converting to it because they find in it both spiritual enlightenment and personal freedom. That is why Islamophobia is such a cancer and why we must tackle it. The Government have a role to play, but so has the rest of society. We have to ensure that we are engaged with the Muslim community in many ways. We need to stress over and over again that those terrible events on 11 September last year had nothing to do with Islam.

The hon. Member for Wycombe drew attention to his constituents' condemnation of those terrible atrocities. The general response of British Muslims in condemning those atrocities reminds us of the real Islam: an Islam of peace, tolerance and understanding.

That is why the Government find the unprovoked attacks on Muslims so repugnant. We all need to understand that careless use of Islamophobic language and images causes great suffering in Muslim communities. In the worst cases, it influences those who abuse and attack Muslims. It has no place to our society.

My hon. Friend drew attention to the fact that we must engage with the anxieties of Muslims and other minority faiths about religious discrimination. We must consider

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the case for it to be made subject to the law. That inevitably raises many difficult, sensitive and complex questions to which there are no easy answers or quick fixes. The Government are determined to take a strong lead in eliminating all forms of discrimination and intolerance. We are therefore tackling religious discrimination in several ways.

My hon. Friend referred to article 13 of the EC employment directive. As hon. Members know, it outlaws discrimination in employment and training on grounds that include religion. We are committed to implementing it by 2 December 2003.

The Department of Trade and Industry issued a consultation paper on implementing the directive last autumn. It is now analysing the responses with a view to drafting regulations and related good practice guidance, on which it will consult later this year.

We are also tackling religious discrimination through the Human Rights Act 1998. We incorporated the European convention on human rights into UK law on 2 October 2000. We believe that it will help to create a new culture of rights and responsibilities in Britain, including people's rights to hold or manifest their religion or belief. The Act changes the nature of the debate on religious discrimination that must take place in the light of the developing human rights culture.

As hon. Members know, in the aftermath of 11 September, the Government tried to introduce proposals to extend the law to make incitement to religious hatred a criminal offence. That was part of our measured response to counter those who exploit the fears that terrorism raises.

We tried to protect those who risked assault or abuse because of their religious beliefs. The proposals would have expanded the current law on incitement to racial hatred. However, opposition in another place unfortunately meant that the proposals could not be made law. We await with interest the outcome of the deliberations of the Select Committee on Home Affairs on Lord Avebury's Bill, which covers much of the same ground.

As my hon. Friend said, the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 created new religiously aggravated offences. They include assaults, threatening behaviour and criminal damage, and they carry higher maximum penalties when there is evidence of religious hostility in connection with them. We believe that that will play an important part in tackling the problem.

As my hon. Friend knows, we need to continue to engage, and practical information is important to doing that. The 2001 census therefore included a question about religious affiliation. It will provide important data on Britain's minority faith communities. It is also symbolically important because it acknowledged the importance of faith identity. The responses to the question will help inform the planning and delivery of services that are sensitive to the needs of faith communities. I gather from my hon. Friend's remarks that he is especially concerned about that. As hon. Members know, the results of the census are due in February next year.

Legislation alone is not enough. We are considering a complex and crucial matter. We cannot achieve everything through law. We need to affect our culture, and that means adopting a comprehensive approach in which

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education, training and a greater effort to teach more in schools about the diversity of faith will play an important part.

Mr. Goodman: Is the Minister aware of the expressed desire of many of my Muslim constituents for either an Islamic school or a girls school in the area, and will he speak to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills about making it generally easier to establish such schools?

Mr. Wills: The hon. Gentleman might be aware that we are introducing measures to encourage the establishment of faith schools, which we think are an important means of engaging people in the community. In return for receiving state funding, they undertake to subscribe to the national curriculum and various other provisions. That is an important way in which we can integrate minority faiths into our society and bring both sides together. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills is aware of the hon. Gentleman's constituents' desires.

We need to do more to encourage in young people an understanding of different faiths and the importance of the richness they bring to our society. From September, citizenship will form part of young people's education. For the first time, pupils will be taught as part of the national curriculum about the diversity of identities in the UK, about the importance of the fact that we in this country have plural national identities, and, critically, about the need for mutual respect and understanding.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West referred to the need to engage with faith communities across the spectrum, including in the delivery of public services, which is critical. The Government are reviewing the way in which we interface with the faith communities. We shall ensure improved consultation and participation and the presence of appropriate faith communities at major national events, and we will build on that. In the context of the jubilee there was a remarkable reception for faith communities at Buckingham palace, involving 700 members of the main world faiths from all parts of the United Kingdom. It was the first time that such a gathering had taken place.

All the main faiths share core values of peace, tolerance and helping others—all essential elements of social cohesion. The participation of faith communities in

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interfaith dialogue and activity plays a critical role in building and sustaining cohesive communities. We know that the process is not always easy. The disturbances last summer in some northern towns showed that some things can fracture communities and trigger violence. It is vital that attempts by the British National party and others to create divisions along ethnic or religious lines do not succeed, and the obligation to ensure that they do not rests on the Government in particular, and on every member of our society. Such divisiveness is cruelly destructive of the cohesive communities that we all want.

Faith community leaders at national, regional and local level have a responsibility to show others the way forward by their good example. That is currently an active process in my Swindon constituency. As a Government, we have to play our part by giving leadership, by listening and by responding, and I assure my hon. Friend that we are determined to do that. We recently published a guide for local authorities, "Faith and Community", which we believe will assist in the process.

My hon. Friend spoke of the need for the media to play their part. That is crucial because people's view of the world is in large part seen through the eyes of the media. Whatever politicians do or say, people are often far more informed by what they see on television or read in their newspaper, so my hon. Friend makes an important point when he says that the governing bodies responsible for the media, both print and broadcast, also have a role to play.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport was similarly concerned, and facilitated a meeting following the events of 11 September between Muslim leaders and the Press Complaints Commission and the broadcasting authorities about the portrayal of Muslims in the media. I am sure that the dialogue will continue and I hope that we will see an accurate reflection of our communities in the media.

Our relations with the Muslim community are extremely important to the Government and we will continue to strive to improve them. We want our Muslim community to find in the Government not only a sympathetic ear but a friend, willing to do all that we can to make Britain a safe and fulfilling place in which to live.

Question put and agreed to.

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