19 July 2007 : Column 137WH

19 July 2007 : Column 137WH

Westminster Hall

Thursday 19 July 2007

[Sir John Butterfill in the Chair]


[Relevant documents: Report of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism, and the Government response thereto, Cm 7059.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Liz Blackman.]

2.30 pm

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): I thank the Government for their response to the inquiry, particularly because they have taken the unusual step of issuing a Command Paper, which gives a clear indication that they have taken seriously the work of the 14 MPs who looked into this issue for some significant time. The previous Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, personally met the all-party group on anti-Semitism, and the current Prime Minister, before he took office, reiterated the Government’s position unequivocally during two speeches that I was privileged to witness, including an important after-dinner speech for British Jewry.

A vital factor of Parliament’s work is that it has taken the lead on this issue. That may sound like a trite, side point, but it is not, for reasons of both principle and practicality. The point of principle is that when dealing with racism—anti-Semitism is a form of racism as abhorrent as any other—one should not simply throw issues to the Executive to lead and run with, but accept one’s own responsibilities. All Members present will want to hear clear and coherent responses from the Minister about tangible developments from the Government, because the Executive have a vital and important role to play. However, we must all tackle racism in our lives, parties and constituencies.

A great strength that emanates from the report is that the main political parties, which are represented here today—the Liberal Democrats, the Conservative party and the Labour party—have been prepared to tackle their own problems with anti-Semitism. To me, that is as important a step forward as any other. It is not that people have not tackled such problems in the past; however, the three main parties have in their own ways—and in an essentially unified way—looked in their own back yards and been prepared to challenge such issues with their own colleagues and institutions first and foremost. That is the most encouraging development, and it reinforces the model of Parliament taking the lead.

I hope that the Minister agrees that the all-party group’s methodology of taking a cross-party approach, mirroring that of a Select Committee, and having a group of unbiased parliamentarians assessing the situation and coming to unbiased conclusions, gives the report respectability and removes party bias. The report and its recommendations are therefore particularly important to both the Government and wider society.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): For the sake of completeness and because of her role and its relevance, given her background in a troubled Province, we should record the membership of the hon. Member for
19 July 2007 : Column 138WH
North Down (Lady Hermon), who played a big part in the report and who knows something about the consequences of intolerance.

John Mann: I thank the hon. Gentleman for those comments. It is not parliamentary terminology to call him my hon. Friend, but he certainly is a good and close friend from our work on this issue, which demonstrates the importance of cross-party co-operation. The involvement of Northern Ireland was certainly a vital factor, as was the fact that Members who had no describable vested interest participated in the process, thus giving it authenticity and creating a benchmark. One could argue with the details—one always can—but the benchmark exists for the future. People can look at the work and ask, “What is Parliament saying on anti-Semitism?” or “What is Parliament’s view on what is happening in the outside world, and what should be done about it?” That benchmark can be used by us and others and will exist for years to come. It is a vital tool, which will allow us to hold the Government to greater account.

Albert Einstein said that

Implementation is the difficult part with any such report. Identifying the problems is one issue—and there are many, because anti-Semitism is a growing problem—but implementing recommendations from the report in respect of which there is dialogue with the Government is a far greater one. I do not intend to spend any time going through the report, because both it and the Government’s response are available to read, and I shall not waste Parliament’s time by going through those issues again, although other hon. Members will need to home in on some of the specifics in their contributions.

I want to address two points in detail, the first of which concerns civic society and its institutions. The report gave a message beyond Parliament about what society should be doing about anti-Semitism. I shall give two examples of where there could be progress, on which I shall be interested to hear the Minister’s views. Secondly, there are some specifics about Government implementation that I would like the Minister to clarify or repeat.

The examples from civic society include what I consider to be priorities—the worlds of sport and football. Yesterday, I convened a meeting of the football world about anti-Semitism in football, as a starting point. There is clearly a role for the Government regarding anti-Semitism in football, but not a leading role because the football authorities and the football world itself must deal with those problems. At the meeting, we discussed in detail the growth of anti-Semitism in community football and football across the country. We also discussed the problems in the professional game, in which there is anti-Semitism on the terraces and beyond.

There was one major, encouraging factor and one negative factor at the meeting. The encouraging factor was the involvement of the England supporters associations. A range of active England supporters from official supporters’ bodies were at the meeting, some of whom are stewards at local clubs, such as Millwall and Southampton. They gave good examples of best practice when dealing with racism and anti-Semitism in professional football. They are prepared, as volunteers and spectators
19 July 2007 : Column 139WH
within the sport, to participate with intelligence. The number of England fans who attended was one of the most encouraging things I have seen since I have been involved in chairing the all-party group in the past two years. It gave a powerful message that many people are our allies in dealing with racism: people beyond the normal, expected sources—out there in the world we know well. I hesitate to use the term “ordinary world”, but I am talking about the world outside. The practical suggestions from there were incredibly valuable.

The negative thing was that some football clubs chose not to attend—I know that they must be very busy. I agreed at the meeting and put it on the record that I would write to those clubs offering them the opportunity to participate in the debate. Representatives of Arsenal football club, West Ham United and Chelsea, who were unfortunately too busy to attend yesterday’s meeting—unlike the Football Association, Tottenham Hotspur, the England fans and many others—will get the opportunity to participate in a debate. They have been written to, as have Leeds United, which I know well and which have been mentioned on a number of occasions. Those four clubs have been written to today to entice them into the debate on anti-Semitism. Given that that is now on the record, I am sure that they will be keen to participate. We are looking for an important section of civil society to take the lead. We as parliamentarians can play our role in assisting that process.

The second example from civic society is the universities. I know that others will want to talk about the universities’ so-called boycott. Of course, there is no boycott and there will be no boycott; it is a misnomer given by a group of people who have time on their hands. They have nobody to negotiate on the real issues affecting their work force, which is perhaps why their membership seems to be going down rather than up and will continue to do so if they choose to pick on the frivolities of life, such as intellectual debates, rather than the real stuff of life, such as the terms and conditions of their members.

Without question it is the role of university leaders to ensure that every student, including every Jewish student, can work in an atmosphere on campus that encourages study. We can get hung up on statistics. I do not look for violent attacks to quantify the problem on campus—I assess the smell and sight on campus, what people hear there, and what we in the community call antisocial behaviour. Those are not things that, in themselves, would ever warrant police involvement, and “atmosphere” is probably the best word to describe them. The accumulation of such elements means that people are not happy in what they are doing, or are making choices because of what they perceive they will have to go through. That is a growing problem on our university campuses.

David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend agree that the real problem is the reluctance on the part of some Jewish students on some of our campuses to report incidents of anti-Semitism to the university authorities, because of a perceived feeling that there will not be a sympathetic response in some cases? Has he encountered that phenomenon?
19 July 2007 : Column 140WH

John Mann: I thank my hon. Friend, who represents two universities in his constituency, for his pertinent comments. That issue has been well reported; indeed, an interesting dialogue with the football authorities took place in that regard. The Football Association has good reporting systems, but the question of how well they worked was part of the debate. Perhaps an even more important question is whether people know that they exist and trust them. I think that the FA is in the lead in civic society in this matter, and, ironically, the universities could learn something from it.

The universities need to deal with these issues coherently. For example, one of the ways in which antisocial behaviour—the atmosphere on campus, or what I would call anti-Semitism—can occur is simply through silence. Shunning and ignoring a student is part of deliberate and calculated discrimination. How can one complain about that, and what would be the criteria for making a complaint? Could one go to the police and say, “No one is talking to me. I demand that you take action”? Clearly, one cannot do that.

We now have some expertise in this country—perhaps more than other countries—through the way in which we have begun to tackle antisocial behaviour. We need to involve the same ethos on campus and we need some of the same imagination. The lead must come from the university authorities, and I call on them in that regard. They have been more elusive in being prepared to meet than the football authorities—I find that strange—and significantly more elusive than Ministers or Opposition parties, which have always been happy and quick to meet. The universities have managed to duck meetings, despite a lengthy and significant debate on the matter in the other place.

I call on the university authorities to start doing the appropriate thing, which is not to turn away and say that they can handle this. They must be clear and open and say, “Here are our systems.” On the university boycott, they should say unequivocally, “There is none and there will be none.” Every university should say that. They should outline what they are going to do about incidents on campuses and colleges, and say clearly to every student, “No racism of any kind in any educational establishment will be tolerated.” That means that anti-Semitism will be tolerated no more and no less than any other form of racism. That message is not coming out strongly enough.

Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): I am following the hon. Gentleman’s points very carefully. Has he had the briefing that I received from Universities UK, which referred to the universities’ disappointment at the fact that the all-party group’s inquiry had not reported their evidence? They seem to be very keen to catch up, even if they were a little behind at the beginning. Will he comment on that?

John Mann: I was rather surprised by that briefing. I shall be moderate with my words and simply say that we are seeking a meeting with the universities and have been for some time. That meeting has not taken place. The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) has offered to participate in such meetings. I have had clear messages from the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) and my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) saying that they are happy to
19 July 2007 : Column 141WH
participate. I am sure that others, as well, will want to participate. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) would love to participate. However, we have not had the opportunity. We are free and we will be free to meet, but we need the universities to come to the table. Perhaps they should spend less time writing to us and more time meeting us.

Mr. Boswell: I appeared yesterday on the Universities UK platform on a different subject. I had some private words about this matter. We should perhaps work on the basis that there is an understanding of responsibility on that side, and we need to work together to clinch it and to have a constructive discussion. It is unfortunate that we have not done so. In fairness to the universities, they have made some efforts, both individually and collectively. We now need to bring our collective wisdom to bear on what I think everyone accepts is a problem.

John Mann: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. It is clear that parliamentarians are keen to meet the universities to discuss this issue; I am sure that they will respond accordingly. Such meetings would help take matters forward in a very positive way, which would be good for the universities and for their reputations. We will reassure all parliamentarians on this issue.

I shall conclude with a number of questions for the Minister, so that he can contemplate some of the issues and detail. I am keen to know which Minister will be taking responsibility for the management of the programme of activity outlined in the Government’s response. Can we be assured today that sufficient energy will be exerted and time devoted to maintain the progress made by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas), who, in his former role, put enthusiasm and energy into formulating the Government’s response on behalf of the Prime Minister and the Government?

I am also keen to know how many times the Government-appointed taskforce will meet. Will its progress be reported, and if so, in what way? That would help us to see precisely how the cross-departmental implementation of what the Government say they are doing in their response is going, so that we can assist that progress and help the Government to meet their objectives. What form will the progress report take, and can we be certain that there will be real and substantive measures to improve the situation on the ground? The Government’s response has been robust, and I commend it, but it is essential that there be implementation on the ground. We must see real progress, including implementation throughout the country. I am sure that other hon. Members will raise these points in detail.

What are the Government’s priority areas in their response? It would be helpful to have some clarification on that. Does the Minister share the concern that I sense among Members here about the situation on campuses, and does he echo the sentiments expressed in the debate in the other place last month? Will he ensure that ministerial meetings take place with university leaders in the near future, so that they are aware of the Government’s concerns about anti-Semitism on campuses and the so-called boycott issue?

My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth and my right hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Ruth Kelly) were present at the launch of
19 July 2007 : Column 142WH
the Government response—of which the Government made great play—along with many colleagues from both sides of the House. My hon. Friend, as the then Minister with responsibility for such matters, said that he was keen that it should be a model to be shared with other Parliaments, and specified £20,000 of Government money to assist that progress. Is that commitment still there, and do the Government still believe that the model could be used by other Parliaments?

I could say much more, but I shall sit down and allow others to participate in the debate.

2.52 pm

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): I thank my colleague who is, in this context, my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) for his contribution. I also thank the colleague whom I call for this purpose my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) for leading our inquiry. There are times in this place—we all understand them—when confrontation, rude noises and lively debate are entirely appropriate. We should have the lively debate about this subject, but confrontation is not appropriate. We were surprised by the coincidence of view that we established during the four-part inquiry, which enabled us to produce an agreed report.

In terms of teeth, my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw has set the Government some challenges, which I echo rather than repeat. It is important, as I shall signal at the end of my remarks, that we do not just have this process, walk away from it and let nothing very much happen. I want to make a number of comments about different aspects of the report, rather than speaking abut the whole thing, and I hope that we shall build up a picture of some of the problems that we identified.

In the history of racially driven, religiously driven and other sorts of hate crime, anti-Semitism must be the oldest. We cannot absolve ourselves of our record in English mediaeval history, and during the 20th century there were emanations of the most unimaginably appalling hate crime in western Europe. We owe it to the history of anti-Semitism to explore it, to be alert, and to look at the matter seriously. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw outlined our thought process when examining it, and I want to stress that at all times we came to the subject as what might be described in diplomatic language as non-aligned persons. I do not have an exclusive brief from either side of the Israel-Palestine issue. I do not have Jewish ancestry, or a significant Jewish population in my constituency. The issue is not a political one for me, but it is an issue for the country and for Parliament, and I echo what my hon. Friend said.

We can set an example by calling the nation’s attention to the matter, and polishing our own act when that is appropriate. For example, as political parties, we must get on with the job of ensuring that our candidate selection is not biased in that respect, and that there is no preference in working people’s clubs and so on that discriminates against Jewish or other people. We should be able to speak out about local incidents of anti-Semitism, and I hope to give exemplary voice to international incidents. The words that come to mind are: sunlight is the best disinfectant. The source is not precisely tied down, but I think those words came from an American Chief Justice, and they informed our process. Let us find out what the problem is, publish it and do something about it.

Next Section Index Home Page