Select Committee on Home Affairs Written Evidence

6. Memorandum submitted by Dr Nazia Khanum


  1.  Luton has a resident population of about 184,000. The population density per sq km was recorded in 2003 as 4,307—the highest density in any district or unitary authority in the Eastern region and the third most densely populated place in England outside London.

  2.  Luton is the home of people from many diverse cultural and religious backgrounds. It is one of the most diverse towns outside London and about a third of its population is non-white. About 46% of school pupils are from non-white minority ethnic backgrounds. Since the South Asian population has a younger age profile, it is likely that the growth will be faster among them than other groups and within the next few decades the non-white population could be the majority of the working population and then the town itself. Over 100 different languages are spoken and all the major religions of the world are practised by the residents. Muslims form the largest minority group, composed mostly of Pakistanis/Kashmiris (the largest Muslim and ethnic minority group), Bangladeshis (2nd largest Muslim group) and others from Africa, Middle East, Bosnia, etc. The largest faith and ethnic group in the town are white Christians. However, there are Christians in the town from the African Caribbean, African and Indian backgrounds as well. Luton also has other faith communities which include Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Zoroastrian, Bahai and Jewish groups.

  3.  Luton has serious socio-economic deprivation in a few neighbourhoods. The Muslim population of the town is mainly concentrated in the two most deprived wards—Biscot and Dallow. The unemployment among the Pakistani/Kashmiri and Bangladeshi communities is much higher than in other groups. These communities also disproportionately suffer under achievement in schools and colleges, poor housing, poor health and poor transport facilities.

  4.  The younger generation, being mainly born and brought up here, have higher aspirations from this society than their parents but often face barriers in accessing employment and educational facilities on a level playing field. This is due to many factors including their socio-economic disadvantage as well as racial prejudice that exist in society and its institutions. Young Muslim boys in particular feel excluded and alienated in a variety of ways. Colour prejudice appears to be deep in this society and Islamophobia already existed before 9/11. Anti-Islamic attitudes in the media, the prolonged detention of the Muslims in Guantanamo Bay and Belmarsh without trial or conviction, treatment of Muslims in Abu Ghraieb, and the implementation of anti-terrorist legislation resulting in a steep rise of young Muslims being stopped and searched in the streets on grounds of suspicion—all this has created a feeling of being under siege and caused further alienation among Muslims in general and young Muslims in particular.

  5.  It is important to recognise the resentment that the occupation of Iraq has caused among Muslims across the globe and in Luton, along with a sense that the international community in general and the US government in particular are indifferent to the suffering of the Palestinian people and not only uncritically support the Israeli government, but have imported Israeli counter-terrorism tactics into Iraq. The British government is seen as complicit in both situations and that has an impact on attitudes internationally, nationally and locally. It is widely known that Muslim protest votes were responsible for the Labour losing its majority in Luton at the last local authority elections. It is also clear that a strong Labour constituency such as Luton South, with large number of Muslim voters, has now become a battleground of a number of political parties including the newly formed Respect Party for the forthcoming general elections this year. The war on terror sometimes feels like a concerted national and international covert strategy to demonise Islam and Muslims. The media regularly undermines Islam by using terms such as Islamic terrorists, Muslim extremists, Islamic terror etc whereas such provocative terms relating to Christianity were never used to identify groups in Northern Ireland. Paramilitary groups have always been carefully labelled Republican or Loyalist, not Catholic terrorists or Protestant terrorists.

  6.  All of these combine to make Muslims feel defensive. After 9/11, there have been racist attacks on mosques, Muslim men and women, while the BNP and others have used the War on Terror as cover for inciting hatred against Islam and Muslims to make the situation worse. There is much tension among Muslims across the UK. If the media is not more responsible in the way they present issues to their readers and viewers, other communities' views of the Muslim community will over time be consciously or unconsciously influenced and distorted. And there is a danger of young Muslims living down to the stereotype—teenage boys, likely to be rebellious under the best of circumstances, might think along the lines, "Well, if they all think I'm a dangerous fanatic, I'll try to be a dangerous fanatic!" Even if this was in practice a pose, it could lead them into trouble with other communities and the police.

  7.  Despite provocation, Luton has so far succeeded in avoiding race riots of the kind that some of the Northern towns of England experienced in the summer of 2001. Luton has also successfully kept a lid on the serious inter-community tension caused by the murder of Kamran Shezad, a young Pakistani/Kashmiri college student by a group of African Caribbean young men in August 2003. The avoidance of riots and murders is a negative way of approaching community cohesion but, as a Muslim who has lived over 20 years in Luton, it is my personal experience that, on the whole, community relations in the town are fairly good most of the time. I suggest that the following factors may have contributed to the way the communities behave in Luton:

    —  Luton, despite its pockets of serious deprivation, is in general not as socio-economically deprived as some of the Northern industrial towns which experienced community riots in 2000. Even the recent closure of Vauxhall in the town did not lead to a massive unemployment which could have destabilised community relations. This is especially important in terms of avoiding a sense of resentment from the White community. Since people are reasonably comfortable, they are less likely to respond to attempts to rouse them against ethnic minorities who are "taking away" their jobs, housing, taxes, etc.

    —  The local authority in Luton does not follow a policy of social segregation in housing along communal lines as has been seen in some Northern towns. Even though Bury Park and Dallow have a high concentration of Asians, they could not be called purely Asian enclaves. Many people from other communities live, worship and shop there.

    —  Luton Borough Council has achieved good representation from at least two large minority ethnic groups ie Pakistani/Kashmiri and African Caribbean communities. However, there is a great disquiet among the Bangladeshi community because there is not a single Bangladeshi councillor to voice this community's needs.

    —  Some of the major players in the voluntary sector in the town are positively contributing to maintain and enhance good community relations and cohesion. For example, Bangladesh Youth League and Bengali Women's Project organise annual summer school activities for young people in Luton which are proactively multicultural and multi-faith. A substantial number of the children in their summer school are white. Their Centre for Youth and Community Development, in the heart of the most deprived neighbourhood of Luton, is a great example of young Bangladeshi leadership achieving good community relations and cohesion for all cultures and faiths. Other good examples are the work of Purbachal—the Eastern Sky, Luton Multi-cultural Women's Coalition, Ghar Se Ghar, Khidmat, Dale Centre, Mitalee, Pakistan Kashmir Youth Forum, Luton All Women's Centre, Dallow Learning and Community Centre, Bury Park Community Centre, various community development trusts and so on. Similarly, Luton Council of Faiths is playing an important role in keeping the interfaith dialogue and activities alive and contributing to the community cohesion. The local community radio station, Diverse FM, which broadcasts in the summer, is run by young Bangladeshis but deliberately involves all communities, with programmes targeted at Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, African-Caribbeans, Irish, Africans, English, etc, as well as non-specific youth programmes with popular music.

    —  Luton's carnival is another good example of a successful multicultural annual event which brings people of diverse backgrounds together.

    —  Luton's Police service is proactively working towards being culturally competent and dealing with threats of excesses by outside extremist groups and internal community tensions.

    —  Luton's community leaders also have made it clear on many occasions to internal and external extremists that they are not welcome in Luton and that their excesses will not be tolerated. Luton's density of population has contributed to a general unspoken consensus among all communities that they live on top of each other and cannot afford to have communal or race riots.

  8.  However, it is wrong to be complacent. The potential remains for race relations to deteriorate and the harmonious co-existence of diverse communities to break down. For example:

    —  There are still surprisingly few minority ethnic teachers in Luton. This means that pupils do not see non-white role models or authority figures. This may damage the perceptions of both white and non-white pupils. It also means that many ethnic minority children tell us that their teachers do not understand or sympathise with their culture.

    —  Some schools are de facto segregated, with an overwhelming majority from the Asian community. This is not desirable in such a diverse town, where people have to learn to live with difference. This also exacerbates the problems caused by having so few minority ethnic teachers. In such schools, the alienation of minority ethnic pupils from white majority is almost institutionalised.

    —  Although it is seldom picked up as a problem, it must be recognised that the rural schools outside Luton are also segregated because both teachers and pupils are almost entirely white. Since their working lives will bring many of these pupils into Britain's multi-cultural towns and cities, they too are not being well prepared for community cohesion.

    —  Though people mix together harmoniously in public spaces, there is little social mixing between communities, for example in people's homes. Luton's community cohesion therefore remains skin-deep and fragile.

    —  On all indicators, including health, education, income, housing, employment, longevity, etc, Luton's minority ethnic communities are dramatically more deprived than the white communities. This is unjust and is potentially destabilising.

  9.  Consequently, there remains a need for more co-ordinated and positive action by the statutory, private and voluntary sectors. For example:

    —  There should be much greater investment by the local and national governments in the voluntary sector to build capacity of specific sections of the disadvantaged communities such as young Muslim men and women. Those who feel alienated must be given a stake in this society.

    —  The glaring inequalities in Luton experienced by some socioeconomic groups in employment, education/skills, housing and health should be reduced as soon as possible.

    —  The media should be stringently monitored and held to account when it uses language and presents stories in ways which could incite hatred and hostility towards specific communities such as Muslims. Local newspapers in particular, sometimes seem to pander to an assumption of intolerance among their readership which does not reflect my own experience of the views of the majority community, but which damages the public debate.

    —  Luton's local authority should seriously tackle the non representation of the Bangladeshi community on the Council.

    —  Every effort must be made to make the Muslim community feel that they are not being demonised or criminalised. Before 9/11, no one in Luton—whether Muslim or not, even knew what Al Qaida was!

    —  There should be more events to celebrate Britain's common heritage, as well as focussing on specific communities. For example, the exhibition on Tudor life which has just opened at Wardown Park Museum, attracted many minority ethnic visitors who are interested not in learning how their own family ancestors might have lived, but in learning more about our common British cultural ancestry.

  10.  Community cohesion in the UK is an aspiration we all should strive towards and we have achieved a great deal in this town and this country. However, we cannot succeed unless those who feel marginalised and demonised believe that they are receiving social justice.

7 February 2005

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