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Last Tuesday, I stood at the holocaust memorial in my neighbouring constituency of Ilford, South, together with the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith). I would like again to pay tribute to councillor Alan Weinberg; he is now leader of the council but in his mayoral year he initiated the construction of the memorial at which we now hold the annual ceremony. I was moved by the mix
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of people who attended that ceremony, which included schoolchildren from across the borough. I should say to my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) that my local imam was also present; I cannot say what happens elsewhere, but in our area the imam attended and the Muslim community was represented. Indeed, children from the Muslim community spoke about the holocaust, and we should all pay tribute to that.

One of the most moving moments of that ceremony was when we all united and said the Kaddish, which is the holy memorial prayer in the Jewish religion, for the 6 million people of all religions who perished in the holocaust and the millions who have perished since in other genocides around the world. We have to ask ourselves whether we have learned anything. I am not convinced that we have when I see some of the things that take place, be it in Darfur, Rwanda, Bosnia or elsewhere. We must learn from history. Why do we do this to each other? I am not clever enough to know the answer.

I would like to relate a moving story from a few years ago. I was humbled and honoured to visit Theresienstadt in what is now the Czech Republic. I went with two of my closest friends, Alan and Tana Fox. Tana was born in Theresienstadt, when her sister, Bela Molnar, was four years old—they were the family Goldstien; they had survived the holocaust. Standing with the couple at Theresienstadt moved me to tears. I wondered how humanity could have done this: how man could have done this for any reason. There is nothing, and there will never be anything, in this world that could justify people doing such things to each other.

We also visited Babi Yar, where Jews were rounded up, thrown into a ravine and shot. Again, I was moved to tears, and that does not happen often. One hon. Member mentioned that no birds sing at such locations, and that is true; no bird sang when I made my visit—there was not a sound. As I walked around, it was impossible for me to comprehend truly what had taken place. I cannot comprehend it, and God forbid that I should ever be able to do so because that would mean that it had happened again.

Dr. Lewis: My hon. Friend’s mention of Theresienstadt reminded me of one of the brightest aspects of the whole holocaust disaster: the behaviour of the people of Denmark, from the monarch down. There were 10,000 Jews in Denmark and the people of Denmark were tipped off by an anti-Nazi German diplomat as to when those people were going to be rounded up, and they got the vast majority of them safely away to Sweden. Only 500 or so were rounded up; they were sent to Theresienstadt and thanks to the ongoing campaigns on their behalf most of them survived even that experience. One thing that is not mentioned often enough is the outstanding behaviour of the Danes, including the king, who said, “If my people are going to wear a yellow star under occupation, so will I.”

Mr. Scott: My hon. Friend is, of course, totally right in everything that he said—those events should be recorded and honoured.

There are many holocaust survivors in my constituency. Over the years, they have told me their stories, and I have listened carefully. There were tragedies, where whole families were just wiped out for nothing more than their
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religion—in many cases, it was not even for practising the religion; it was purely for having a quarter Jewish blood in them.

We face a danger today. In the past few weeks, I have been mortified and saddened to see daubings of slogans such as “kill the Jews” on synagogues in my constituency and at an underground station. Again, I commend my local council for having the daubings removed within minutes of being told that they were there and I commend members of the Muslim community who came to an event at which I spoke the other Sunday to condemn anybody, from any source, who does a thing such as this.

Further to my intervention, I also believe that neo-Nazis will try to capitalise on the situation in Gaza and, under the mist of what is happening there, attempt to divide communities that for so long have worked together to try to achieve harmony. I still believe that my own area lives in harmony. We have harmony—please God may that continue for years to come and may we never be divided by anybody or anything.

Lembit Öpik: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is only in relation to Israel that people seem to conflate religion with Government policy? Does he agree that whatever one’s view of the Gaza situation we cannot tolerate using what has happened there as an excuse for anti-Semitism?

Mr. Scott: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I do not totally agree with him. Of course we cannot tolerate anyone using any events anywhere in the world as an excuse for anti-Semitism, but anti-Semitism exists and we have to recognise that. Sometimes events elsewhere in the world are used as an excuse for latent anti-Semitism. Events elsewhere can affect what happens in Britain, but anti-Semitism is not acceptable in any shape or form, as he rightly says.

The holocaust was the responsibility of an individual, or even a small group. Thousands of otherwise ordinary people colluded and co-operated in the murder of millions. We must never let such a horror happen again. I had words written down to say today, but they are irrelevant and meaningless, because they are only words. Every hon. Member, no matter what their political persuasion, must unite to say—as we are today—that hatred and anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and homophobia are all unacceptable, and we will not stand for them. If we do not speak out, we should hang our heads in shame. Those who do not speak out should be ashamed of themselves. Let us pray that it never happens again.

2.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Sadiq Khan): I am grateful to all the hon. Members who have spoken for their wise and insightful contributions to this debate. I expected nothing less, but it was gratifying to hear Members on both sides of the House agreeing on the importance of keeping alive the memory of the holocaust.

It is worth putting on record the big turnout in the Chamber today. Some have had the chance to speak and others have intervened, but many more have sat and listened to the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) asked whether this
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should be an annual event. In my last three and a half years in this place, I have discovered that it operates on convention according to custom and practice. Given that the biggest two topical debates that we have had have been those on this issue, today and last year, I have little doubt that it will become a convention that we have such a debate in the week of 27 January every year.

In the context of such a profound debate and in the time available, it is hard to respond to all the important points that have been made, so I shall confine myself to some that resonated especially strongly with me. The hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) made an outstanding speech in which he raised three specific questions. First, he asked when police services would start recording anti-Semitic incidents. I am pleased to tell him that I dealt with the Government’s response to the report published by the all-party group on anti-Semitism, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), which recommended that change. We expect all police services to be able to record anti-Semitic incidents by April 2009 and I thank the hon. Gentleman for the vigour with which he has pursued that issue. The pressure that he has brought to bear will ensure that it happens by that deadline.

The second issue that the hon. Gentleman raised was the reports in the press of the alleged boycotts of Holocaust memorial day. He would expect nothing less than for me to say that, first, I will not comment on reports in the press, and secondly, I have received no indication from the group that it has boycotted the event, and nor am I aware of ministerial colleagues being thus informed.

The third point was about the engagement with groups, aside from the excellent engagement that Ministers have had—I do not mean that in a self-congratulatory, backslapping way—with key stakeholders in the past few weeks. That raises the interesting point of the inter-faith dialogue that needs to take place. Much such work is taking place, including the Inter Faith Network, the Government funding of regional faith forums and the Faith in Action grant programmes. We are looking at other ways in which Muslim-Jewish dialogue can take place in forums such as the Muslim Jewish Forum and the Coexistence Trust, which have a huge role to play. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will work with me to ensure that more work is done in that area.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon made an excellent speech, the key point of which was, “Never again.” However, to bring it forward to what is happening now with regard to standing up to hatred, I pay tribute to the work that she is doing locally with young people.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) made an excellent and moving speech, bringing forward his personal experience through his parents along with contemporary examples of genocide, which I thought was really important, especially as we move forward.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks) talked about learning lessons from history and taking on those who propagate discriminatory views. That is very important, especially in the current climate.

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The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) gave very good reasons why he could not stay until the end of the debate. I was nervous when he complimented me and I glanced over at my Whip when he did so. I am even more nervous now when I pay tribute to him for his contribution. It was an excellent speech. I never thought that I would find an occasion to say something nice about him—he is a man who does not carry himself in a way that garners compliments—but he talked about his age and experience, and his experience was a unique one from which we must learn. He talked about visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau and the impact that that it had on him and the two children. Like many colleagues, I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau last year, with two children sent from two schools—Graveney school and Ernest Bevin college. It had a deep impact on me. It was moving, scary, traumatic and shocking.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) made a brilliant speech, in which she gave a moving account of a similar visit. She brought forward the relevance of the role that footballers have to play in 2009 as role models in striking against racism.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) made a great speech, too. He talked about his early-day motion, which was signed by more than 136 MPs. The Chief Rabbi is a great man, and I am really pleased that the hon. Gentleman got the Chief Rabbi to go to a school in his patch. He talked about the impact of the trip on his young children, and, more importantly in the context of a wider audience outside the UK, about the roles that Germany, Poland and Russia have been playing and the differences in how they deal with the matter.

The hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott), who has become a friend of mine in the Public Bill Committee on the Business Rates Supplement Bill, made an excellent speech. Over the past three or four weeks, he and I have discussed with anxiety and concern how our respective communities were dealing with the incidents locally and domestically. He made an excellent speech about what has happened in his community and the huge amount of inter-faith work that is going on in his community.

A key role of the day is education. The Holocaust Educational Trust is doing invaluable work, as is the Holocaust Centre in Nottinghamshire. The Holocaust Educational Trust today announced a new programme to teach primary school children about the lessons of the holocaust.

The holocaust is not a Jewish problem. Nor is it a problem of Roma Gypsies, or Sinti, or of any of the other victims. Nor are the genocides in Darfur, Bosnia, Rwanda or Cambodia problems that belong to their victims. All religions and cultures need to be part of Holocaust memorial day. I was reminded that these problems face us all. Together, we can face up to such problems. Together, we can show solidarity and courage. I commend the House for the way in which we have conducted ourselves this afternoon. It is a tribute to how seriously we take the issue.

2.53 pm

One and a half hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings, the motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 24A).

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Armed Forces Personnel

2.53 pm

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): I beg to move,

We are fortunate to have the best armed forces in the world. What I see as I visit them around the world, including in Afghanistan just before Christmas, is always profoundly impressive and often humbling. Their extraordinary commitment and dedication make the world a better place. They fight terror on its front line to enable the rest of us to sleep more easily. That all comes at a price. We ask much of our armed forces and their service exacts a toll on them and their families and on veterans. For example, this year as the rest of us opened presents and ate turkey on Christmas day, our people in Afghanistan were fighting hard in Operation Sond Chara, near Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province.

In return for such service, the Government have an obligation to the armed forces. It is an obligation that I am determined that we fulfil. Equally, it is an obligation that should never be viewed as complete. We must continue to strive to do better, to respond to new challenges and to minimise the downsides associated with service life. I welcome the opportunity to set out what we have done and what we will continue to do in that regard. This is our commitment to the men and women of our armed forces.

First and foremost, I know that the House will join me in paying tribute to all those armed forces personnel who have given their lives in the service of our country. They include the four people in Iraq and the 51 people in Afghanistan who made the ultimate sacrifice in 2008. Most recently, this year, we remember the five men who have been killed while patrolling in Helmand province. These deaths are utterly tragic and our thoughts and our deepest sympathies are with those families affected by such a terrible loss. Their loved ones did not die in vain. Our mission in Afghanistan is part of a coalition of some 40 nations. We are there helping to create the space in which Afghan capacity and institutions can develop. Eventually, those institutions will be mature enough to meet the needs of the Afghan people. It will take time, and we will need to be patient.

Our mission in Afghanistan is sometimes presented as having little relevance to our country. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are in Afghanistan because it is in our national security interests to be there; otherwise it would once again become a failed state from which al-Qaeda or other terrorists could launch attacks on to our streets, either from the ungoverned space that would exist or under the protection of the Taliban. It is this unthinkable scenario that our armed forces are preventing through their courage and their sacrifice in Afghanistan.

When I saw those remarkable men and women in Afghanistan just before Christmas, I was struck as always by their professionalism and sense of pride and commitment. I found them in good spirits despite the difficult and dangerous work and the losses that they had suffered. They recognised the importance of succeeding. They also see a different picture from that which is sometimes painted back here—a picture where increasingly the Taliban are in retreat, first a year ago in Musa
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Qaleh, then in the south around Garmsir, and more recently around Nad Ali following the operations over Christmas and the new year.

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way and I agree entirely with him about the outstanding service that our personnel are giving to us. He will agree with me though, I believe, that our military personnel are spending far more time now than even a few years ago in theatres of war. With that goes additional pressure on their families, their wives, husbands, partners and loved ones back in Britain. Of course, that has caused enormous difficulty in relationships. What is the Ministry of Defence doing to help family members cope with the stress and strain of having loved ones who are now far more likely to be in theatres of war than before?

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we have been asking a lot of our armed forces—that they have been operating above the planning assumptions for some time now, and no matter how people try to mitigate them, those stresses come out somewhere. They come out in breaches of harmony guidelines, and therefore create additional pressures on service life.

There are plenty of support mechanisms. People in post are constantly monitored to try to assist, both at local unit level—regimental level—and more widely, at Army level or Royal Marine level or Navy level, to try to mitigate those effects. For instance, we brought in the decompression facility for people coming home from theatre to try to get them in a better place and give them advice on their way home after, in some cases, some very hard fighting and some intense operations. So we are constantly looking at how we can relieve that pressure, and as I shall explain later in my speech, we hope to improve our performance against harmony guidelines, because that in itself is so important.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Ainsworth: I give way to the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell).

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): As well as recognising the personal strains that can be imposed on families and individuals, does the Minister accept that the fact that our Army is “running hot”, as Sir Richard Dannatt described it some time ago, has a consequence in respect of people’s willingness to go on serving, and in particular has an impact on the most important elements of the Army—personnel at the level of sergeant and corporal, who at a particular stage of their development in the Army find that these strains prove intolerable for them and their families?

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