I fear that we may be joining the angels on the head of a pin. No, I disagree with my hon. Friend and I very much appreciate it when he says that he does not intend to be unhelpful. My hon. Friend cannot get away from the fact that certain things cannot be changed, no matter how much we want to change them. I am reminded of the comments of Chief Albert Luthuli, one of the earliest campaigners against apartheid. He referred to apartheid as being the only absolute tyranny because it discriminated against people on the basis of the one thing that they could not changethe colour of their skin. The distinction between absolute and relative tyranny is important as it is the reason why we distinguish between racial and
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religious hatred. There is nothing rational about racial hatred, but there is something rational about religious hatred. The distinction stands.
I view the Bill not in isolation, but as part of package from the Government that I find distinctly and profoundly worrying. With no particular coherent or strategic approach, the Government are seeking to redefine the nature of the relationship between the citizen and the state. It seems to me that they are playing fast and loose with the freedom of religion and freedom of expression, which, once lost, can never easily be regained. That is why my hon. Friends and I will enter the Lobby tonight in support of the reasoned amendment.
I start by paying tribute to my predecessor. Ann Taylor was the first woman to serve as Leader of the House, and the first to be Chief Whip. In both roles, she was renowned for her no-nonsense approach and her sound political judgmentalthough her judgment has been known to falter on occasion. What else could possibly explain her obsession with Bolton Wanderers?
Ann was not originally from Dewsbury. Like me, she crossed the Pennines to do missionary work in Yorkshire. I must admit that I wondered how a Lancastrian would go down in Yorkshire. I think that it probably helped when I reminded people that, in the wars of the roses, Dewsbury was part of the house of Lancaster, and that I had arrived merely to reclaim it. On a serious note, though, there is no greater privilege for a Lancastrian than to be granted adopted Yorkshireman status. It is a status of which I am extremely proud.
Ann and I follow in heroic but tragic footsteps. Wallace Hartley was born just down the road from my childhood home in Burnley. He too moved to Dewsbury before being offered the job of his dreamsas bandleader on the Titanic. I can only hope that my dream job representing the people of Dewsbury in Parliament does not end in quite so tragic a fashion.
Dewsbury has produced men who have changed the course of human history. They include Sir Owen Richardson, who won the Nobel prize for physics, Sir Clifford Allbutt, who invented the thermometer, and Tom Kilburn, who built the world's first computer. Then there is broadcaster Eddie Wareing, the voice of rugby league for millions. Obviously, Eddie did not quite change the course of human history, but few of us will forget his legendary performances on "It's a Knockout". There is also Patrick Stewart, who went on to boldly go where no man had been before.
Dewsbury can also lay claim to the first published work by the Brontë family"Winter Evening Thoughts" by Patrick Brontë, father of Charlotte, Emily and Anne, and curate at Dewsbury parish church in 1810. However, such artistic achievements are dwarfed by those of Bert Lee, organist at Ravensthorpe Wesleyan chapel. Although he had never been in earshot of the bells of Bow church, he composed the Cockney classic "Knees Up Mother Brown." I am half tempted to
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ask my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) for a rendition, but I fear that he will take me up on the offer, so I shall not do so.
Dewsbury has also produced some exceptional women, including Betty Lockwood, a miner's daughter who became the first chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, and Deputy Speaker of the House of Lords. Another is, of course, Betty Boothroyd, who spent 20 years searching for a parliamentary seat. It did not take me quite so long, although there were times when I wondered. Betty went on to become the first woman to hold the most noble, prestigious and elevated office in the land when she became Speaker of the House of Commons in 1992.
Sadly, Dewsbury hit the headlines earlier this month for all the wrong reasons. The story of an horrific assault on a five-year-old boy abducted and nearly hanged by a gang of schoolchildren in a wooded area known as Devil's ditch shocked the nation. Of course, Devil's ditch was a figment of the tabloids' imagination. Far from a gang of children being involved, the police charged only one child and said that they were not looking for anyone else.
I want to pay tribute to the sensitive way in which chief inspector Keith Hallas and his team handled their inquiries. If only the national press could have followed suit: the feeding frenzy that followed, the hounding of families and the demonising of childrenand especially of those wrongly incriminatedwas appalling. As a governor of Earlsheaton school, I want to place on record how proud I am of the pupils, parents and staff there. I am proud, too, of the way in which the community in Earlsheaton and Chickenley has pulled together and got through this difficult period.
I now turn to the subject of today's debate. There are three things that perhaps qualify me to speak with some authority on this subject. The first is that I stand here today, the first British-born Muslim MP, but representing a seat with the highest BNP vote in the country. The second is that, as a former member of the Commission for Racial Equality and as the only commissioner from Great Britain on the Northern Ireland Equality Commission, I have spent a lot of time and much of my working life fighting sectarianism, bigotry and hatred. My own life experiences are the third reason why I consider myself qualified to speak in the debate.
When I was beaten to a pulp by a gang of skinheads on my first day at high school, it was not because of my religion. They did not know or care whether I was a Christian, Hindu or Muslimor, for that matter, whether my family was Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi or from Burnley. In those days we were all seen as "Pakis" and we were all fair game.
The world has changed, however, and Parliament must be receptive and reflect the new reality. Now, when I receive anonymous hate mail or the family car is firebombed in the middle of the night, or when abuse is hurled from cars that whisk by, or I am surrounded by a gang of 20 thugs from Combat 18 telling me that I am going to die, it is because I am a Muslim.
Whether I choose it or not, I am defined by others in terms of my religion, and by my perceived culture. All I ask for is equal protection under the lawno favours,
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just fairness. I am not asking for the right to censor, stifle, or muzzle those who want to criticise, mock or even offend. "The Satanic Verses", "Perdition", "Jerry Springer the Opera" and "Behzti" may have offended thousands and perhaps millions of people across the world, but this Bill will not infringe the right of artists to perform, writers to criticise or comedians to satirise. Jim Davidson and Bernard Manning are still free to make their crass and offensives jokes under the current incitement to racial hatred laws, and Rowan Atkinson can still dress up as a vicaror anything else that takes his fancyunder the new laws.
Fundamentally, this Bill is not about abstract notions of freedom of expression, but about very real notions of freedom from oppression. Of course, the new law must apply equally to all those who inflame discord and incite hatred. As I have challenged the poison of Nick Griffin and the BNP, so too have I challenged the poison of Sheikh Omar Bakhri and al-Muhajiroun, and I will continue to do so. A modern Britain has no place for extremism of any order.
We often talk of our pride in the British tradition of tolerance, but I advise hon. Members to throw tolerance in the bin. When one is cut, one tolerates the pain, and when one misses a train, one tolerates the wait, but those are hardly positive experiences. Tolerance is fickle and, in this context, meaningless. I do not want to be tolerated, and neither do women or people with disabilities. We need to move to a society that goes beyond tolerance, and which moves towards acceptance.
In constituencies such as mine, people live parallel lives. There is severe segregation. It is ignorance of other cultures and other faiths that breeds fear: it is fear that breeds hatred, and hatred that breeds ignorance. It is our job, as politicians, to break that cycle and push for even greater integration.
At this point, I feel that I would be failing in my duty if I did not mention how abhorrent I found the Conservatives' general election campaign, which ruthlessly exploited voters' insecurity about issues of immigration. It was profoundly depressing and served only to give the far-right fascists the credibility that they crave so desperately.
On a positive note, we have never before had such a diverse Parliament, yet the commonality we share by far outweighs the diversity that exists. While it is right that we celebrate our diversity, we miss a trick by not celebrating our commonality too. Britain is proud to be a diverse society, but we must fight to prevent it becoming a divided society.
The Bill that we are debating today is a step on the way towards achieving that objective. It may be a small step, and perhaps it will be used only in extremely rare cases, but it still sends out a very powerful signal of what is, and what is not, acceptable in our modern-day society. It still sets out the parameters of decency that we expect from citizens in a cohesive, forward-looking Britain.