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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 25 June 2014

[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]

Burma (Persecution of Minorities)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Gyimah.)

9.30 am

Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): It is good to appear before you today, Mr Howarth. I thank the Minister for also appearing today. His portfolio covers many difficult issues, not least of which is the one we are discussing. I do appreciate that. I also thank other hon. Members who have been involved in raising this issue. I have spoken to some of them this morning. They are genuinely interested in the issue and concerned, and have previously initiated various debates in their own right, which gives an indication of their support for raising the issue, but they could not be here today.

Let me explain why I continue to want to raise this issue. The little secret is that seven or eight years ago, I had to google “Rohingya” to find out what the group was and what its background and history was. That arose when I was approached as a Bradford councillor, which I was then, through a housing association that had been contracted to provide accommodation and support to a group of Rohingya who were coming or wanted to come to Bradford through the Gateway programme, and we did provide a lot of support. There are certainly no votes in this, but there is now an important group of people, whom I consider to be Bradfordians and constituents, who regularly raise with me appalling stories of what is happening. The new arrivals originally came from Bangladesh. We campaigned hard on some of the issues faced by the Rohingyans in the camps in Bangladesh, but obviously in the last few years a new issue has emerged in the public’s awareness—the issue was not new in itself, but it was new in terms of public awareness. I refer to the activities that were taking place in Burma or Myanmar, and those are the ones that I want to talk about today.

The UN special rapporteur, Mr Quintana, produced a report back in April, and I will need to quote from it at some length, because this is someone who knows the issues. He has been to Burma many times—nine times, I think—and has visited some of the most difficult areas in Kachin and Rakhine. He reported back a sombre tale of his time in Myanmar.

The good news, at the beginning of Mr Quintana’s report, was about the release of many prisoners of conscience—more than 1,000—but some of his other comments make pretty worrying reading. In particular, he raised the ongoing issue in Burma of human rights. Despite the release of political prisoners and other reforms that are taking place, he had to conclude that he saw

“no improvements in the human rights situation.”

Indeed, he believed that the situation was getting worse, from what was “an already dire state.” He found that the practice of separating or segregating communities

“continues to have a severe impact on the Muslim populations in Rakhine…and in particular the Rohingya community.”

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The discriminatory and really quite strict restrictions on freedom of movement for Muslim populations remain in place, as the Minister is well aware. Mr Quintana concluded that part of the report by saying that that continues to affect

“a range of other human rights including”—

sadly—“the right to life.”

So serious are some of the issues that Mr Quintana identified and experienced that he went on to conclude that the extrajudicial killings, rapes and other forms of sexual violence—

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He will be aware that since 2011 the Christian community in Burma has been persecuted dramatically, with 64 women and girls raped, 66 churches destroyed, 200 villages burnt down and more than 100,000 people displaced. Right up to 2013, there were gang rapes, as he has mentioned. Surely more pressure should be brought to bear on the Burmese Government to stop this horrendous activity.

Mr Ward: That is absolutely right. The fact that many of my comments, because of issues raised by my constituents, refer to the Muslim Rohingya in no way minimises the atrocities that are committed against other groups as well.

These issues are very serious. I started to mention some of them. Others include the lack of due process, fair trials and rights; forcible transfers; and the deprivation of liberty for so many people. These are not isolated incidents; they are happening on a large scale and are directed, in many cases, against the Rohingya population. So serious is the situation that the special rapporteur concluded that they amount to “systematic human rights violations”. They are so serious that they should be referred to the International Criminal Court as crimes against humanity. They are crimes against humanity as defined under the Rome statute and need to be elevated to that level in the public consciousness. We are talking about the worst of the worst.

I know that the Minister is aware of the report, and other hon. Members may want to pick out specific points, but it contains a whole series of recommendations, many of which the British Government could contribute to. I will come to specific actions that I and others believe the Government could and should take. More recently—again, the Minister will be aware of this—there has been a report back to the United Nations by the Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Ms Kyung-wha Kang. If anyone has not seen the video of the interview and questioning that took place, I recommend that they watch it. The report back to the UN was made only two weeks ago—I think it was 17 or 18 June; it was very recently. She points out that this is the second anniversary of the inter-communal violence in Rakhine and the third anniversary of the terrible conflict in Kachin.

The UN Assistant Secretary-General found that there were severe issues in providing access to international humanitarian aid. It is restricted, although in different ways, in the two states to which I have referred. In Kachin, there are up to 100,000—the point about the scale of this has already been made—displaced people in camps. Half are in Government camps, where some aid, of a limited nature, is possible and available. However,

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half are in IDP—internally displaced people—camps, which are under independent army control and where access is simply unobtainable.

The level of suffering is indicated in the comments of the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, who said that in Rakhine she witnessed

“a level of human suffering in IDP camps that I have personally never seen before”.

Men, women and children are living in appalling conditions, with severe restrictions on their freedom of movement, in camps and isolated villages. In Rakhine, there are estimated to be 140,000 displaced people, 90% of whom are Muslims, although there are some of other faiths. The problems are made worse by the fact that Rakhine is the poorest state in Myanmar. We can take it as a common state of existence that there is no electricity, no schools, no toilet facilities and no freedom of movement. Many people have been living in those conditions for years, although such accommodation—if we can call it accommodation—was supposed to be temporary.

In theory, humanitarian aid can be provided in those areas, but in practice it is much more difficult for a whole host of reasons. The first of those is travel; the Minister, who has visited the area, will know far more about that than I do. The UN Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs pointed out that a two-hour boat ride was required to reach one of the camps, let alone to transport any aid. There are also administrative barriers to obtaining authorisation. Often, the local community are at best distrustful and at worst hostile towards aid workers, whom they believe favour the Muslim community. We are talking about people who are in desperate straits. Humanitarian aid workers, who are incredible human beings who risk their own safety and put their lives at risk, are treated with hostility because they are thought to favour a particular group.

The real concern, as the Minister knows, is the continued statelessness of the Rohingya, on which there seems to be very little progress. It is telling that Ms Kang was advised not to refer to the Rohingya as Rohingya, because to do so would be controversial and might trigger tension, which might provoke a violent reaction. Considering the awful past in Burma, it appears that relationships with other states, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, have improved—although they could not really have been much worse. Notwithstanding Ms Kang’s comments about the negative aspects of the situation, to which I have referred to, she pointed out that huge strides had been made in political and economic reform, but little progress seems to have been made on the question of the Rohingya in Rakhine. She echoed Mr Quintana’s comments about the need for a change in culture. Pressure is being applied for constitutional change, but a fundamental reconciliation and a change in culture are the most important things. What is the point of a constitutional change if it is not supported by a change in attitude and culture in the region?

There are some points that I would like the Minister to respond to. Ms Kang refers in her statement to the Government action plan on Rakhine. Does the Minister know anything about that, and what progress is being made on it? There is also an opinion—I would like to know whether the Minister is aware of it—that the UK Government’s criticism of the Myanmar Government is

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muted because foreign Governments do not want to disrupt the progress being made and are therefore taking a softly, softly approach. We want reforms to continue, but that cannot happen at the cost of providing much-needed support for the Rohingya. Defending the Rohingya cannot be seen as contrary to a desire to support changes and reform in the country.

There is also a view that the reforms to date have simply been a smokescreen—that the President is carrying out limited reforms with a view to trying to get the international community to remove or reduce sanctions. As I understand it, some sanctions have been removed, so the strategy is working. It does not seem to be of any benefit to the Rohingya, however. I am grateful to the Burma Campaign UK, which has supplied me and other Members with briefing material over the last several months. The campaign has raised some specific concerns, to which I would like the Minister to respond. One is the census in Burma, to which the UK contributed £10 million. As the Minister knows, however, the promise that the Rohingya would be allowed to register as Rohingya was not kept. That is a broken promise. There is also a view that the Minister was somewhat snubbed and was banned from making a planned speech at Rangoon university; I do not know whether that is true. In addition, within hours of his visiting Kachin state and calling for peace, the Burmese army attacked two civilian villages.

There is also the issue of the limitations being placed on the numbers of children that Muslims can have and the restrictions on non-Buddhist men that prevent them from marrying Buddhist women. I find the whole question of the Buddhist faith difficult, and it is not something I have a great deal of knowledge about. Some time ago, however, I saw a BBC report—I think it was—of a Buddhist monk who was justifying the slaughter of children. When he was asked how he could possibly justify that and be a Buddhist, his response was: “It’s a bit like weeding a garden: if you want to get rid of the weeds, you have to get right down to the roots.” The killing of children was therefore justified on the basis of destroying the roots of a plant to prevent it from growing and becoming a problem later. It was sickening and appalling, and if that is Buddhism, I have a completely wrong perception of what that religion is.

There is also the question of political prisoners. More than 1,000 political prisoners of conscience have been released, but I understand that the number of political prisoners is increasing again. The number of people being held has doubled this year. Many prisoners were released with the intention of removing sanctions, but we now have another escalation in the persecution of political prisoners. I do not know the details of the Andy Hall case, and I do not know whether the Minister has any comments. Does he know of that case? If Andy Hall is convicted, he could face many years in prison, but I am not too aware of the case.

The other issue is military training, which I and others have raised in parliamentary questions. Military training, like many of the other things to which I have referred, could have been used as a lever to try to bring about improvements, particularly for the Rohingya.

David Simpson: I have seen research showing that young Christian adults and teenagers have been threatened with conscription to the army if they do not give up

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their faith. They are told to shave their head, as the Buddhists do. If not for charities such as Barnabas and others, which provide shoes and clothing to Christians in Burma, they would be in a very bad state.

Mr Ward: That echoes the familiar pattern that emerges. Burma is almost like two nations. Good news stories continually come out about the progress that is being made, and on the other side there are horrendous atrocities and abysmal behaviour towards large sections of the ethnic minority communities. It is almost like two parallel worlds that exist alongside each other. I can understand why we want to encourage one side to improve and become part of the international community and—if we want to be cynical—to develop trade. We know the benefits of international trade and how it can bring about political reform, but what about the other side? What about the daily reports of behaviour that would be unacceptable in any other part of the world?

Burma Campaign UK has produced eight steps that it believes the British Government could take to improve human rights in Burma. First, the Government should put human rights—not trade or political reform, but human rights—at the top of the agenda, elevating human rights as the Government’s policy priority in Burma. Secondly, the Government should support an international investigation into human rights violations against the Rohingya. We hear about various internal investigations, but an international investigation is required into what the UN special rapporteur believes to be crimes against humanity.

Thirdly, the Government need to consider the use of aid as a lever. I believe that twice as much aid— £20 million—is spent on building Government capacity and moving towards democracy than is spent on helping civil society and relations between the different ethnic groups across Burma. Is that the right balance? As I said earlier, there seems to be a view that if we can bring about political reform and constitutional change, everything else will follow. That view is contested by those who believe that cultural change is required as well as constitutional change.

Burma Campaign UK also calls for a global summit on countering hate speech. The Minister may want to say something about that, as it has been well documented. Hate speech is becoming a severe problem, and such a summit should not be a talking shop, but should lead to a clear action plan with significant—it would have to be significant—international funding and technical expertise provided to address hate speech. Further, the campaign recommends that the UK Government should make any future training of the Burmese military conditional on the ending of Burma’s tactics in ethnic states. There is clearly a lot for which the Burmese Government are either responsible or to which they turn a blind eye.

Burma Campaign UK also recommends that the UK Government should support the establishment of an international investigation into rape and sexual violence in Burma, which has continued unabated since Thein Sein became President. No steps seem to have been taken and impunity seems to be a major problem. Human rights violations are committed on a regular basis, with impunity for the perpetrators.

The campaign calls for support for an internal, cross-departmental investigation into the decision to fund the census. Again, was that another lost opportunity to

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provide something that would lever the changes we seek? Finally, the campaign supports a new independent review mechanism for political prisoners in Burma. We welcome the number of prisoners who were released, but it seems that, after the international acclaim and praise for those actions, the Burmese Government simply reverted back to their old ways. The review mechanism has to be lifted out of the internal investigations and appraisals within Burma and be done by the international community.

There are quite a few things there, and I hope others want to contribute, but the main message that I bring to the debate is the frustration felt by everyone who understands the issues, particularly those from within the Rohingya community, which I now know very well. The Rohingya community has fitted into our own community, but it feels totally powerless about what is happening so far away. The Rohingya community believes that its cause is not forgotten, but is not considered a top priority compared with other important international diplomatic measures.

Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. Does he agree that some of the Rohingya in Burma have not even been counted in the census?

Mr Ward: I thank the hon. Lady for that question. The census was supported by UK funding, but the Rohingya are not only not counted, but are not allowed to describe themselves as Rohingya, so we are not aware of the scale of the problem. We can only conclude that the problem is greater than is publicly known. That, among many others, is an issue that I hope the Minister will address.

9.58 am

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate and to see the Minister back in his usual spot; as always, we look forward to a very good response from him. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) on securing the debate and giving us this opportunity to participate.

In this House, we are charged with the responsibility of looking after our constituents—in my case, the constituents of Strangford. But the people of Strangford, along with all the other constituents across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, have an interest in what happens in the rest of the world. They are interested in what happens to ethnic minorities. They are also interested in those who are being persecuted for their faith, and I would like to comment on that.

The topic of this debate is the situation in Burma and the persecution of the Rohingya and other minorities. I will comment on the Rohingya minority and how they are being persecuted for their faith, and also talk about those who are persecuted because of their Christian faith, which is equally important.

It is very sad that we should again be discussing tragedies in Burma, which concern Members here, those who would have liked to be here and those who have raised the issue in Adjournment debates both in the main Chamber and here in Westminster Hall. Burma, as we all know, is a troubled region with a troubled past.

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We become aware of that when we read the history and observe what has happened. Decades of military dictatorships have wreaked havoc in the country, and ethnic people, especially those in resource-rich areas and areas of armed conflict, have paid the highest price—with their lives, both in deaths and in injuries. In the past 13 years, more than 3,500 ethnic villages have been destroyed in Burma.

I am conscious of the background information. In particular, I take note of the comments made by United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Kyung-wha Kang. She said that the level of suffering that she saw in Arakan was something she has never seen before anywhere in the world. That puts into context the issue before us. Such devastation and malice are incomprehensible.

The UN listed the crimes by the state of Burma as including forced relocation, forced labour and sexual violence, which both the hon. Member for Bradford East and my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) mentioned. The calculated rape and murder of women and young girls are completely unacceptable. That they are being carried out by the Burmese army on some occasions is even more incomprehensible, and that underlines the need to do something about it.

We saw extrajudicial killings, torture and the recruitment of child soldiers on our television screens last week—not in Burma, but in Iraq, where children as young as 10 were carrying weapons. How can that be? It is happening in Burma as well. All that is bad in a conflict zone has taken place in Burma.

I shall quickly comment on the issue of war crimes. Our background information mentions that a massacre of Rohingya Muslims took place in January this year. I am a Christian, but I believe strongly in freedom of religion for everyone. I believe strongly that those who want to practise other religions should be able to. The massacre of Rohingya Muslims occurred in the northern part of the Rakhine state in that month. Some 48 Rohingya men, women and children were brutally murdered and slain in the village of Du Chee Yar Tan, and they included the local police sergeant. The Government have flatly denied that there have been any killings. Thousands of people have been killed and injured, with between 120,000 and 140,000 displaced. There clearly is an issue, and we cannot close our eyes to what is happening around us.

For those people in Rakhine state and the north of Burma, I put this point: what is happening in Burma that we as a Government can respond to? I have every faith in the Minister; I genuinely mean that. I know that when he responds, he will do so in the light of research and with compassion.

David Simpson: My hon. Friend may be aware that recently—I think on 27 or 28 May—a draft religious conversion Bill was introduced in Burma. Anyone who wants to marry in to or convert to another faith, or marry inter-faith, would have to ask for permission through some specially set-up local authority. That is an absolute nonsense, but it is how people are being treated over there. Any violator of the legislation could, I understand, receive at least a two-year sentence in Burmese prisons.

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Jim Shannon: My hon. Friend is right. How wrong can it be? We are confronted on many occasions with examples where human rights and the freedoms of expression and religion are denied to people. The Government there are apt to introduce legislation that restricts those rights. I thank my hon. Friend for bringing that to the attention of the House; I was going to comment on that further on in my speech.

Speaking of such crimes, the website Burma Partnership says that documentation

“demonstrates that attacks on civilian populations are not isolated, but are widespread and systematic tactics of the regime”—

that is, the Government—

“used to secure their economic and political control. As such, they constitute not only human rights violations, but are crimes against humanity and war crimes.”

When we talk about war crimes, we are talking about something that needs accountability for those involved. It is time that those who think that they can carry out, in their own countries, crimes that are unspeakably brutal, violent and evil know that a day of reckoning is coming in this world.

Valerie Vaz: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, even earlier this year, a priest was murdered in Kachin state, and that a 17-year-old girl was raped? While on the face of it, things look as though they are going well, there are still people who are arrested arbitrarily.

Jim Shannon: I thank the hon. Lady. I will comment on that particular incident, which clearly illustrates what we need to address.

Burma Partnership continues:

“And yet, the military regime has not been held accountable for these acts; impunity prevails in Burma.”

In other words, people do it and get away with it, if they are a part of the Government. There is no accountability.

I would like to know clearly from the Minister what discussions have taken place and what the response has been from the Government. Is there accountability in this process? If not, we have to find ways to make them accountable. Why has the military regime in Burma not been held accountable for such acts? What pressure, if any, have the British Government put on Burma so that it desists and takes action to stop those acts?

It has always been known that Burma was religiously intolerant, but that is becoming clearer as an increasing number of stories about the treatment of the Rohingya emerge. The UN believes that, since mid-2012, when sectarian violence broke out, more than 86,000 Rohingya have attempted to flee Burma to neighbouring countries. In 2013, 615 people died during the flight for freedom. It is believed that the outbreak of pogroms against the Muslim Rohingya has left around 140,000 people in squalid displacement camps, a point well illustrated by the hon. Member for Bradford East.

What steps have the British Government taken to help and protect the Rohingya? Are we providing aid to Burma’s neighbours to help cater for the influx of asylum seekers? What medical help is available to those in displacement camps? Is there sufficient help for them in relation to housing and temporary accommodation? There is a risk of disease breaking out; that is bound to happen, in confined places. Have we been able to assist? If not, what can we do?

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Another issue that has come to our attention is the theft of land. I said at the beginning that there are large veins of minerals in the country. What international economic pressure has been put on Burma? Ordinary, good peasants who own a bit of land are victimised, pushed and discriminated to hand it over. What is happening about that?

On Friday the 20th of this month, the Burmese Government closed the consultation window on its proposed religious conversion law, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann referred a few minutes ago. It would require Buddhist women to seek permission from their parents and the authorities before marrying outside the Buddhist faith. The law states that those people found to be applying for conversion

“with the intent of insulting or destroying a religion”

can face imprisonment for up to two years. Clearly, this is a human rights and an equality issue, and the Burmese Government must respond to it. This law is a poorly disguised form of religious persecution and it will affect those from all religions who are not Buddhist.

Have the British Government had discussions with the Burmese about this proposed law? What steps have been taken to ensure that it is not ratified? What pressure are we applying? When it comes to applying pressure, it is not only the Minister who can do it but all the European countries, as well as the US, by acting together. We must combine and use our collective power to influence the Burmese Government.

This issue has been discussed in Parliament before and it has now raised its head again. Would the Government care to give more information about how British taxpayers’ money is being spent on training the Burmese army? In introducing the debate, the hon. Member for Bradford East mentioned that subject—the training that the British Army gives the Burmese army. We find out through reports and other information that the Burmese army have subsequently been involved in atrocities—vile, evil, wicked atrocities—against the ethnic groups across Burma. We get annoyed that our Army has trained their army in tactics and that then their army uses those tactics against their own people. There has to be a system whereby we can make the Burmese army accountable for that. Whether such training is for warfare or not, do the British Government intend to continue working alongside this brutal regime?

In her intervention, the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) talked about the allegations of systematic war crimes. Burma Campaign UK, a human rights group, has produced a report called, “Rape and Sexual Violence by the Burmese Army”. Within the Burmese army, there is clearly a systematic and orchestrated campaign of attacks on women and young girls, such that rape and sexual violence are the norm rather than the exception. This Parliament has taken a strong stance on this issue. Through early-day motions and other contributions, we have urged that more action be taken right across the world to combat such violence.

I will give an example of what has happened in Burma. Since January, there have been fresh allegations of rape against the small number of Christians in the Kachin province; Christians there are being brutally denied their rights, too. The hon. Lady referred to the case of the 17-year-old girl who was raped by two Burmese army soldiers. Again, there is no accountability

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for that. Such people seem to have immunity from prosecution and from accountability for their actions, and I certainly feel strongly about that.

Christians are one of the other minorities who face severe persecution in Burma. Release International reports that many Christians there still have to engage in forced labour, that huge numbers of them have been removed from their homes, and that rape is used as a weapon of war against minorities. Christians in Burma have had to deal with the Burmese Government’s catchphrase, “To be Burmese is to be Buddhist”, and Christianity is commonly referred to as the “C-virus”. Christians are denied the right to maintain and build places of worship, as my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann said earlier. When they do maintain or build places of worship, the buildings are often burned down. In Karen state, Buddhist propaganda is played during Christian services and Christians in the military or Government are denied promotion. Clearly, we have many concerns about all of that.

In Kachin province, some people practise Christianity; it reflects their language and culture in what is predominantly a Buddhist country. Kachin province is rich in jade and timber, but Christians there have stated that they are fighting for their culture and history. They are also fighting for their lives against a Burmese army focused on trying to destroy them.

The Burmese army broke a 17-year-old ceasefire on 11 June and since then up to 1,000 people have been killed or injured, while another 120,000 people have been displaced from Kachin province. Some have fled to China; others have sought shelter in refugee camps elsewhere throughout the region. Clearly, there are a number of places in Burma where there are abuses of human rights, which affect not only the individuals involved but their families.

The Kachin leader is General Gun Maw, who is also the chief negotiator. He had a meeting in Washington with President Obama. Talks were held, with great hopes for peace, but peace did not materialise. The uncertain peace was broken by the junta, and that has cast a dark shadow over Kachin province and the way forward.

There have been multiple recordings of the issues in Burma. I will quickly quote Human Rights Watch:

“There have been long standing and well documented reports for many years that the Burmese army perpetrates widespread sexual violence against women and young girls in ethnic conflict areas, often with utter impunity and denials. The Burmese government’s admission that it had investigated and punished eight perpetrators”—

just eight—

“from the military is obviously a fraction of the scale of this repugnant practice, and the Burmese military has a long way to go in tackling this problem and reigning its rampant troops in to accord to the rule of war.”

They also have to teach their troops what is right and what is wrong. Human Rights Watch continued:

“Even Ban Ki-moon recently called for an investigation by the Burmese government into sexual violence in conflict.”

When a country’s army is engaged in something as odious as sexual violence, it is time that its troops were held accountable too. The issue also brings into question our relationship with Burma, particularly in relation to

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our training of their troops. Action has to be taken in all cases of sexual violence and reports of prosecution of offenders in courts should be published.

Burma Campaign UK has said that last year 133 Burmese civil society organisations wrote to our Prime Minister about Burma, but they have not had the response that they had hoped for. I hope that today the Minister can give us some indication of the way forward.

In conclusion, this abuse that I have talked about is just the tip of the iceberg. We are greatly troubled by it, and we seek the Minister’s response and thoughts on how we can go forward in a constructive fashion. What can the EU do to assist us to help the Burmese people? What is the United States of America and its Government doing to ensure that we can address these issues together? What are the Burmese Government doing to protect Christians and other minority groups in Burma? What steps can be taken to ensure that Burma complies with international standards of human rights?

Mr George Howarth (in the Chair): It might help if I point out that a considerable amount of time is available to the two Front-Bench spokesmen. They are not obliged to use it all, because there is a provision for me to suspend the sitting until 11 o’clock if we happen to finish early. It is their decision, not mine, whether to use the time.

10.17 am

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): Thank you, Mr Howarth, for calling me to speak. As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I thank the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) for securing this debate today. Although it is undeniable that Burma has made considerable progress in recent years, many Burmese civil society representatives who I have met have made the point that the hon. Gentleman made: in some ways the narrative has been established that there has been so much progress in Burma—it is moving towards democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi has been released from house arrest and elected to Parliament, and, I think, 42 of the 43 seats in by-elections were won by her party—that everything is well and good in Burma. However, people have expressed their anxiety to me that that narrative has allowed some of the real concerns that have been highlighted today to be overshadowed by it, almost to the extent that there is a degree of complacency about Burma’s progress. Obviously, we have to be vigilant that that is not the case.

We have discussed the plight of the Rohingya on several occasions in the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) has had to leave to attend another meeting, but she and my hon. Friends the Members for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) and for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) have a particular interest in this topic, mainly because their constituents have raised it with them, as was the case with the hon. Member for Bradford East. Sadly, however, there is little sense that much has changed since we started talking about this issue.

Since the outbreak of inter-communal violence two years ago, hundreds of people have lost their lives, as we have heard, while 140,000 internally displaced persons are living in camps, where their freedom of movement is restricted.

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Following a visit to Burma earlier this month, the UN deputy humanitarian chief described conditions in one camp as

“appalling, with wholly inadequate access to basic services including health, education, water and sanitation”.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East quoted, she witnessed

“a level of human suffering in IDP camps that I have personally never seen before”.

We have also heard that aid workers came under attack in March. It is not just the local community that is impeding the efforts of aid workers; the Burmese Government suspended Médecins sans Frontières’ work in a number of states and were alleging bias towards the Rohingya community.

Such is Burma’s rejection of the Rohingya that they are commonly referred to as Bengalis and, as we heard, there are disputed reports that UNICEF had to apologise for using the word “Rohingya”. The Government have yet to bring the perpetrators of the attacks on NGOs and the UN to justice and aid workers continue to put their own safety at risk.

Questions have been raised about whether the treatment of the Rohingya and the systematic denial of basic rights amount to genocide. Human Rights Watch has previously warned of ethnic cleansing in Rakhine state and the UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Burma voiced his alarm at the deteriorating crisis, warning that

“recent developments in Rakhine state are the latest in a long history of discrimination and persecution against the Rohingya community which could amount to crimes against humanity”.

These are allegations of the utmost severity, yet the gravity of the situation does not seem to be matched by the response from President Thein Sein and it is not matched by the international community’s response, which lacks urgency. Concern has been expressed, but expression of concern is simply not enough to deal with the situation.

Our concerns are, of course, not only confined to Rakhine state. The Kachin conflict has been ongoing for three years after the breakdown of the 17-year ceasefire, and there are continuing troubles in northern Shan state. The UN special rapporteur estimates there are 100,000 internally displaced persons in Kachin and Shan, and reported to the Human Rights Council in March allegations of sexual violence against Kachin women and the arbitrary detention and torture of young Kachin men. He continues to receive allegations of

“serious human rights violations accompanying military offensives”

in those areas, including reports that more than 100 women and girls have been raped by army soldiers since 2010; 47 cases of gang rape; and 28 women dying from their injuries.

Between March and October 2011 alone, the Women’s League of Burma documented 81 rapes in Kachin and Shan states. The Minister will know that there are great difficulties documenting such atrocious crimes, not least because many victims or witnesses have been intimidated into silence by the army, so the real figures may well be much higher. The Kachin Women’s Association Thailand looked at 34 cases of rape in the Kachin conflict between just June and August 2011 and found that 44% of the victims were killed by their rapists. Such attacks have been perpetrated with impunity, as we have heard.

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Ethnic women’s organisations are concerned that President Thein Sein’s Administration is reluctant to work with women’s groups to stem the sexual violence, while the Burmese constitution protects military officers, who can only be tried in military courts. It is difficult to achieve prosecutions either in the usual criminal courts or the military courts.

Women’s organisations have also emphasised to me how land grabs, which the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned, are increasingly a concern in Shan state. It is not only the military who are responsible. If the military seize land in an area, the rate of sexual violence increases, too; it seems to accompany their presence. Mining companies are also responsible. Burma seeks to open its country and economy to overseas businesses, which the UK Government have been keen to support. I will return to that in a bit more detail later. As mining companies come in, there is a real issue—as we have seen in so many other developing countries—with land being confiscated from the people who have sustained a living from it for many years.

It is known that Thailand wishes to return refugees from the Thai-Burma border. It returned 1,300 Rohingya refugees last year. I understand that, with the military coup in Thailand and the new regime there, this demand for refugees to be returned and the lack of consideration for refugees is exacerbated. China has returned refugees, too. The continuing conflict and difficulties in providing humanitarian assistance mean that it is by no means safe to return. It is no longer clear where the refugees would return to, given what I have just said about land grabs: the land belonging to the IDPs has been confiscated.

It had been hoped that this year’s census could provide a breakthrough in upholding the rights of ethnic minorities. DFID contributed £10 million for the census, as we heard, making the UK the leading donor, among contributions from the UN and other states, which obviously puts the onus on us to ensure that the census is conducted fairly and properly. The Burma Campaign was among those to warn that Burma was not ready for its first official census in 30 years, highlighting ethnic groups’ concerns that it could exacerbate inter and intra-communal tensions. It has also been reported that 23 civil society groups wrote to the parliamentary Speaker to ask for the census to be postponed, amid heightened tensions and objections to the categorisation of ethnic groups and sub-groups.

It was notable that the census did not use the preferred names of the ethnic groups themselves and was only produced in Burmese, except for some English copies for foreigners. So from the outset it was not an inclusive process that recognised and respected the language and heritage of Burma’s many ethnic groups. The UN special rapporteur observed that

“the Government has approached the census without sufficient or meaningful consultation with all affected communities”.

As we have heard, the UK received assurances that the Rohingya would be able to self-identify, but Burma’s Government failed to honour that commitment. As the UN special rapporteur highlighted, the decision to prevent self-identification

“is not in compliance with international human rights standards”.

I understand that the FCO subsequently summoned the ambassador, but it is not clear whether any conditions were attached to UK funding for the census or what

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precautions were taken by DFID and the FCO to reduce the likelihood of further violence caused by publication.

As I have said, I have on a few occasions met women from ethnic minority groups in Burma, most recently meeting women who visited for the summit on ending sexual violence in conflict. I congratulate those who participated in that initiative and, in particular, I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on his work. When I met those women we talked, obviously, about sexual violence, particularly in respect of ethnic minority women in Burma. They told me that there are no specific legal protections for women and children, most particularly in the ethnic and rural areas; that Burma’s rape law is based on a penal code from the 19th century and it is, for example, legal for a man to rape his wife; and that domestic violence is not taken seriously.

The thing that struck me was that, right through the chain of trying to take action against sexual violence, there are obstacles in the way. It is partly to do with a culture that treats domestic violence and attacks on women as acceptable. But the police officers are all male, so when investigating rapes and talking to victims, that is obviously a problem. There is little in the way of rape support services and certainly no official rape support services; it is difficult to obtain a prosecution; victims are intimidated, as hon. Members have said; and prosecutions against military officers have to go through the military courts. At every step there are problems achieving prosecutions.

One outcome of the recent summit was that the Foreign Secretary said that prosecutions have to be the way forward, but it is much easier to say things than achieve them, and so much needs to be tackled. I urge the Government to consider working specifically with women’s groups, particularly from the ethnic minority communities in Burma, to see how we can address some of these issues.

Women have fewer than 5% of the seats in Parliament. That is exacerbated by the fact that 25% of the seats are reserved for the military, although there are now two female representatives in the military section. Women are even more under-represented in the Government. The Global Justice Center cites Burma as an example of the failure of the UN resolutions on women, peace and security and there are particular concerns that women are not involved in the talks to end the ethnic conflicts. I urge the Minister to talk to colleagues in DFID about what further work can be done on capacity building with women’s groups.

It is encouraging that the President has now agreed to sign the declaration of commitment to end sexual violence in conflict, but, as I have said, that can only be the start of the process. The women I met who had been to the summit displayed a degree of scepticism, saying, “It is good that we have got this far, but it shouldn’t just be about the summit. The action has to be matched by words and a detailed plan for implementation.”

I shall, as the hon. Members for Strangford and for Bradford East did, mention the role of the Ministry of Defence and the British Army in offering training to the Burmese military. This gives the UK a certain degree of leverage, as does the aid funding that we have put towards the census and other programmes. The UK needs to use that leverage to challenge the constitutional

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role of the military—as I have said, it has 25% of the seats in the Burmese Parliament—and, more specifically, the human rights violations, sexual violence and land grabs for which the military are responsible, as well as to question the culture of impunity. Very few military officers have been prosecuted.

Finally, it is important to highlight other recent worrying developments, including the President’s reported support for laws preventing inter-religious marriage and religious conversion. Those would constitute serious breaches of international human rights, which I trust the Foreign Office is discussing with its Burmese counterpart. Human Rights Watch has reported that the electoral commission has tried to intimidate Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, and to restrict comments on military and constitutional reform, while Amnesty International has cited the recent arrests of human rights defenders and new prisoners of conscience in detention.

The Government’s cross-departmental paper “UK Activities in Burma” focuses on encouraging responsible investment in Burma. It is welcome that Burma is opening its doors to foreign investment, and there is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations free trade agreement as well. That is important and needed, but efforts to promote the GREAT Britain campaign, run by the Foreign Office, must not overshadow work to promote democracy and human rights in Burma. Last September, the Government published their business and human rights action plan, and I hope the Foreign Office is ensuring that British businesses are aware of the human rights situation in Burma and, in particular, the need to respect land rights when they seek to invest in that country.

“UK Activities in Burma” states:

“We are well positioned to have a positive impact in Burma.”

I urge the Foreign Office to use that position to push for the constitutional reforms that Burma needs for free, fair and inclusive elections next year, including the removal of the barrier to Aung San Suu Kyi perhaps taking on the mantle of President; for basic political and human rights to be respected; for the opening of a country office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights; and for an end to the conflict. I realise I have focused on the negative; I am not underestimating how far Burma has come—the progress is welcome—but it is a grave danger to underestimate how much further the country still has to go.

10.32 am

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Hugh Robertson): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) on securing this debate on an important issue. Having said that, I start by apologising to him, because I do not have ministerial responsibility for Burma. The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), holds that responsibility, and he is travelling. I am merely standing in for him. I have had a crash course in Burmese politics overnight.

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One of the things that has struck me in listening to this debate—there have been extremely good contributions on all sides—is that there is a classic Foreign Office dilemma here. I think everyone would agree that the country is in transition. There is therefore a very difficult judgment on whether to stand off it and criticise it or get involved in it and try to influence and affect that change. Doing that, however, can open one up to many of the criticisms that are levelled at the UK Government—that we take too rose-tinted a view of the situation or that we are not tough enough. These are complicated diplomatic matters, and I absolutely understand many of the concerns that have been expressed. I will try to pick them up and answer them.

It is fair to say—I think everyone has acknowledged this—that the last three years in Burma have been a period of remarkable change. The country is undertaking an extraordinarily complex transition. It had an authoritarian military regime and is trying to move to a system of democratic government. The economy was centrally directed and, as the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) pointed out, is moving to be market-oriented—hence the Foreign Office guidelines. The country has come out of literally decades of conflict, and the good news is that there is peace in much of the country. As the hon. Member for Bradford East said, more than 1,000 political prisoners have been released and there is greater freedom of expression, but neither of those is in itself enough. The judgment is that the 2012 by-elections were credible, but there is clearly an awful lot more to do. The initial ceasefire agreements that have been signed between the Burmese Government and 10 of the 11 major armed groups appear to be holding.

I can sense that some will say that that is typical of the Foreign Office’s complacent approach, but it absolutely is not. Let me recognise at the outset that serious challenges remain. There are political prisoners who are still in jail and more activists have been detained in 2014 as repressive laws have failed to be amended in line with international standards. Small-scale conflict continues in many ethnic areas and there are worrying reports of incidences of sexual violence, which all Members have highlighted. The UN and other agencies struggle to gain unhindered humanitarian access to Rakhine state, where the humanitarian and political situation remains deeply concerning. I would not for a moment pretend that everything is rosy in this garden, and I would not want people to think that we have a rose-tinted view of the matter. We really do not; we absolutely recognise many of the issues that have been highlighted this morning.

There is a view, which I understand, having spent last night looking into this in some depth, that the parliamentary elections in 2015 are the watershed moment for Burma’s transition. It is absolutely incumbent on us here to try to create the conditions for credible elections to take place that involve all the minorities in Burma. I hope that will enable the Burmese people to take part in a democratic process where all their views count. We will be doing everything we can to build and reinforce Burma’s electoral network.

Before I talk about Rakhine, I will try to answer the various questions that the hon. Member for Bradford East and others asked. He first asked me about the Government’s action plan. It might help if I try to

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address his criticism that the UK’s approach to Burma has been too soft. We have consistently raised the importance of the reform process and human rights at the highest level. It was at the top of the agenda at the Prime Minister’s meeting with the Burmese President last year, and my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon has consistently raised his concerns directly with the Burmese Government, including during his most recent visit to Burma in January. During that visit, he met separately with leaders of the Rohingya and Rakhine. The Foreign Secretary raised our concerns again in a call with his Burmese counterpart. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon did so again with the Burmese deputy Foreign Minister as recently as 12 June. As the hon. Member for Bristol East said, the Burmese ambassador—this happens relatively unusually—was summoned to the Foreign Office so that we could express our concern about the conditions in Rakhine state. I hope that gives Members confidence. I cannot think of a country in the portfolio that I directly look after where there has been that level of pressure. It is unusual, and I hope it gives Members some comfort that we are taking the matter seriously.

The hon. Member for Bradford East asked about the Burmese Government’s action plan. We have constantly called on them to share that action plan with us, and I regret that they have not yet done so. It is therefore difficult to form an impression of exactly what is in it. He raised the question of war crimes, and the hon. Member for Bristol East generously paid tribute to the Foreign Secretary’s initiative on that. Not in every area are the answers to many of these problems easy, but at least with crimes of sexual violencewe have had the largest global initiative. The hon. Member for Bristol East was good enough to say that she had met the Burmese delegation that came over. I cannot remember, but I think some 140 Governments were represented in that initiative in some way, shape or form and enormous numbers of people have signed the declaration that came out of it. We are all clear that signing the declaration is one thing, but action and delivery are the crucial test.

Jim Shannon: The Minister is right that it is all very well to make verbal commitments, which are a good start, but the message has to get to perpetrators at every level—lower ranks, sergeants, officers—so that it filters down. Anyone who commits a crime must know that they will be accountable under law, which is not currently happening.

Hugh Robertson: The hon. Gentleman, who has extensive military experience, is absolutely right. He would have been interested to hear the absolutely spellbinding speech made by the Australian Chief of the Defence Force on exactly that issue and what needs to happen to ensure success. All those who were there for that speech heard that message loud and clear. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—I would not say anything else—that making it happen will be the real challenge. It is an extraordinary achievement to have signed the declaration, but that is the easy part and making it happen is different.

The hon. Member for Bristol East mentioned the census, which the British Government, along with other members of the international community, did indeed help to fund because we believed that it would be crucial

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to the development of Burma as a whole. Reports from international observers suggest that, with the exclusion of Rakhine and parts of Kachin, the process was largely carried out effectively. The Government are deeply disappointed, however, that the Burmese Government simply reneged on their long-standing assurance that all individuals would have the right to self-identify their ethnic origin. That remains a point of dispute and a disappointment, which leads to a judgment of whether it was right to support the census. Looking at Burma as a whole, it is a better country for the delivery of that census, but the decision to prevent the Rohingya from self-identifying is a straightforward contravention of international norms.

The hon. Member for Bradford East asked whether I felt “snubbed”. I am not aware that the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon, who was there, did feel snubbed.

Political prisoners are a matter of great concern that was key during the Prime Minister’s discussions. We have urged both the Burmese Government and Parliament to repeal all existing laws that allow the Government to imprison political prisoners, and all laws that are not in line with democratic standards. We will continue to put pressure on the Government to ensure that democratic activists are able freely to voice their opinions without fear of arrest.

The hon. Gentlemen asked about military engagement, which was also raised by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). The focus of our defence engagement is on democratic accountability, international law and human rights. Aung San Suu Kyi has made it clear that the Burmese military, for better or worse, is a core political force in Burma and will be key to the process of political reform, which again returns to the judgment of whether to stand back and criticise the reform if it does not succeed or to engage with it and try to affect the situation for the better. We have tried to do the latter and will continue to use our leverage over the Burmese military to get them to tackle issues such as child soldiers, and to bring sexual violence to an end once and for all. I should just add that the EU arms embargo on Burma remains in place following the majority of sanctions being lifted in April 2013.

I was asked about an international investigation. It is absolutely our view that all allegations of human rights abuses must be dealt with immediately through a clear, independent, transparent investigation and, crucially, a prosecutorial process that meets international standards. We have made and will continue to make those concerns clear to the Burmese Government. It is absolutely the Government’s approach to seek an end to those violations and to prevent their further escalation irrespective of whether they fit the definition of specific international crimes.

Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con): I apologise for not being here at the beginning of the debate. We should pay tribute to our Speaker, who has visited Burma on several occasions and has helped to draw attention to the problems. Nearly 30 years ago when I was a Minister, I went out to meet Sir Nicholas Fenn, the then ambassador, who made the claim, which the Minister kindly repeated today, that to be engaged with

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people is better than to be disengaged. We should pay tribute to the progress that has been made and make it clear that the Burmese people will benefit if Burma pays attention to international norms and applies them to allow its people, including the Rohingya, to prosper in their own country.

Hugh Robertson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, with which I entirely agree. The longer I spend in the Foreign Office, the more I begin to realise that engagement with countries that do not accept our norms and standards is uncomfortable; there is no doubt about that, but I am absolutely convinced that engagement is the correct approach. If we fail to engage and simply stand off from a problem and criticise, we will lose both moral authority and the authority to try to influence. Sometimes, even when engagement does occur, influence does not come from making a lot of noise. Change is often effected by years of quiet diplomacy and initiatives such as those mentioned by the hon. Gentleman and those undertaken by the Speaker and others, which play an important role.

Mr Ward: Most people would understand the dilemma to which the Minister refers. The frustration, particularly for the Rohingya, is that when they say that things are going badly for them in Rakhine, they are constantly told that things are going well elsewhere. They say, “Violations and murders are taking place,” but the response is, “Yes, but things are going well over here. Be patient.” It is difficult to be patient when crimes are being committed against a number of ethnic minority groups. The continual message is, “Put up with it, because we are making progress in so many other areas.”

Hugh Robertson: I entirely understand that frustration. The hope is that a policy of constructive engagement will help to move the whole piece along. I acknowledge that the situation may move much more slowly than we all would want, and that those who are affected will be annoyed and frustrated by the pace of change and will wonder why more is not happening internationally. I understand all the frustrations that the hon. Gentleman properly articulates, but I am not saying that progress is fast enough; it is far too slow and the situation has not moved at the desired pace.

I hope that those who arrive at the hon. Gentleman’s surgery will be given some comfort to know that the matter is being raised in a balanced and sensible way in today’s debate. I hope that he will be able to point to the Government’s actions and the assurances that I have been able to give him, and to the fact that we recognise that a huge amount of work still needs to be done. In a sense, this covers the last point in his excellent speech, which was about the sense of disempowerment and frustration at the pace of progress. I understand and acknowledge that the affected must feel that way, but I hope that I have provided some assurance that we are taking the matter seriously. If we consider the list of responses, including those from the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Minister of State, and the summoning of the Burmese ambassador, that is quite a catalogue of actions, and I do not think many other countries receive such a high level of diplomatic attention.

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The hon. Member for Strangford raised, as he always does, the plight of Christians, with his customary attention to detail. He also mentioned Kachin province. During his recent visit, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon, made a particular point of asking to see members of the Kachin Baptist Convention, which is the largest religious organisation in Kachin state, and he discussed a large range of issues with them. He raised our concerns about the Christian community and other human rights issues with senior members of the Burmese Government. He made a particular point of calling for religious tolerance and dialogue during his speech at the British Council. Earlier this month, we also welcomed Archbishop Bo to London for the preventing sexual violence initiative summit.

As I have told the hon. Member for Strangford in our many conversations about my area of responsibility, the Foreign Office gets an enormous number of letters on the treatment of Christians around the world. We take the issue seriously, and it is definitely moving up the agenda. He knows from debates we have had—indeed, we had one yesterday—that I have particularly prioritised the issue. I am off to Lebanon on Sunday, and I will make a particular point of seeing members of the Christian community on Monday. This really is something that we take very seriously.

We have talked a bit about the preventing sexual violence initiative summit. As a specific result of the summit, funding of £300,000 is earmarked for projects in Burma offering greater support and protection to survivors of sexual violence.

In her speech, the hon. Member for Bristol East highlighted many of the issues that have been raised this morning. She said there is a danger that the narrative of progress will breed complacency. I hope my response has given her some assurance that that is absolutely not the case, and that we realise the problems we face.

The hon. Lady talked briefly about the intermarriage laws. The issue is very much on the radar, and she is right to highlight it. We are concerned about the possible implications of the proposed legislation, and we are following the ongoing discussions through the embassy in Rangoon. We have already raised our concerns with the Burmese Government, and we want to make sure all draft laws are in line with international standards. We want to make it absolutely clear that respect for the rights of women and for the freedom of religion and belief must be guaranteed. To give the hon. Lady further reassurance, let me add that the EU also raised concerns at the recent EU-Burma human rights dialogue.

I hope I have covered the various points that have been raised. Let me finish by returning to where I started half an hour or so ago and thanking the hon. Member for Bradford East for raising this issue; he and other Members are absolutely right to raise it. The Government know that much remains to be done and that progress is not guaranteed; there is an enormous way to go. However, it is worth reflecting—this goes back to a remark made earlier—on a comment made by the International Development Committee in March:

“Progress will not happen by standing back, adopting a cynical attitude to change.”

It really is important to have a constructive agenda if we are to try to force the changes we all want to see. The best way to help achieve our vision of a democratic Burma that enshrines freedom and human rights for all

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is to engage with the parties there. I understand that that will be a frustrating process, and that progress may well not seem quick enough for representatives of minority groups. However, engagement is the key to helping Burma embed reform and to encouraging further meaningful progress towards peaceful and democratic government.

10.53 am

Sitting suspended.

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History Curriculum: North American War 1812-14

10.59 am

Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Until June last year I had no knowledge of the North American war of 1812-14. Britain’s education establishment has throughout my lifetime and—I am under no illusion—probably for the entire period of state education in the UK, from the latter decades of the 19th century, airbrushed that war from the history curriculum. Why? I do not have the answer, but perhaps the Minister has.

Totalitarian states are notorious for rewriting history, but they are not the only ones that do so. I am appalled that Britain is equally guilty on this occasion of not telling people about all their nation’s history—choosing to ignore parts of it. I hope that this morning’s debate will lead to the putting right of an unacceptable omission in the school history curriculum. I was aware that at some point in history British forces had burned down the White House, but I did not know when or in what context. I did not know either that among those who probably torched that and other public buildings in Washington were soldiers from the 1st Battalion the 44th East Essex Regiment, which had spent the previous years fighting the French in the Mediterranean. I wonder if any of those troops were from Colchester. That will require more research.

History taught in schools includes the Romans and Saxons, 1066 and the Norman conquest. It features the battle of Trafalgar of 1805 and the battle of Waterloo in 1815—two great British victories in the European conflicts against France and Napoleon. Those British triumphs changed the history of Europe; of that there is no doubt. The North American war of 1812-14 also changed the course of history—Britain’s and that of the USA. Had the fledgling United States of America, which had been in existence some 30 years, following its war of independence from Britain, been successful in its wish to annex British North America—today’s Canada—and had it not been thwarted by the British Army and Navy, ably supported by loyalists who wished to live under the British Crown rather than a US President, that would have changed the history of the world.

Why, then, has Britain ignored the war? It is clearly a forgotten war when it comes to the school history curriculum. It is buried away somewhere and certainly not given equal prominence with the battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo on either side of it. It was not taught to me at either primary or secondary school. Quizzing my two eldest grandsons at the weekend, I found that neither of them knew of the war, although the one who is at secondary school had heard of Trafalgar and Waterloo. Those were British victories, but so, I would say, was the North American war. In my book, the USA was the aggressor when it invaded British North America, and if it had been victorious, there would not have been a Canada. Arguably, the 10 provinces and three territories of that great Commonwealth Dominion would today be states of the United States of America.

Former American President Thomas Jefferson boasted that conquering what we today know as Canada would be a “mere matter of marching.” His successor as President, James Madison, declared war on Britain in June 1812. The Upper Canadian capital of York—now

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Toronto—was burned by the Americans in the spring of 1813. Parliament buildings were reduced to ashes. At the time of the 1812-14 war, that part of the continent included two British colonies: Upper Canada and Lower Canada. They united in 1841 to become the British Province of Canada, and upon confederation in 1867 with Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, following the passage of the British North America Act 1867, became the Dominion of Canada. Today the country is known as Canada.

As we prepare for the centenary in August of the first world war of 1914 to 1918, it is worth reflecting that in the same month 100 years previously, British troops invaded Washington. It was the last time the mainland of the USA had unwelcome foreign troops on its soil. Canada played a major role in the first world war from the outset. What if it had not existed as a country loyal to the British Crown, as would have been the case had the outcome of the North American war been different? The course of the war would have been different without the Canadians. It was to be another three years before the USA entered the war, in 1917.

What of the second world war? A quarter of the planes, pilots and air crew came from Canada and Britain’s battles in the skies would almost certainly have had a different outcome—it could be argued that there would have been defeat—if it were not for the bravery of the Canadians, long before America joined the second world war. We have just commemorated the 70th anniversary of the D-day Normandy invasion. Canadian troops bravely fought there at Juno beach. Will the Minister confirm that the two world wars are part of the history curriculum? As a result of ignoring, in the history curriculum, the North American war of 1812-14 and its outcome, which led to the emergence of what is now Canada, our pupils and students are not being taught why there were Canadians fighting against the Kaiser and Hitler in the two world wars.

I first became aware of the North American war of 1812-14 when in June last year I had the good fortune to accompany the Colchester military wives choir to Hamilton, Ontario, where they sang at the Canadian international military tattoo. It was the first of our now 80 or so military wives choirs to sing overseas. Between the various acts, there were cameo scenes re-enacting various clashes that occurred in 1813 between loyalist forces in British North America and those from the then 15 states of the USA. The same was scheduled for this year’s tattoo in respect of 1814. That got me interested in finding out more and asking our Canadian hosts about a war of which I was ashamed to admit I had no knowledge. I left Canada better informed.

That summer, by coincidence, a fantastic book was published, entitled “When Britain Burned the White House: The 1814 Invasion of Washington”. I recommend it to all who have an interest in our nation’s history. The author is Peter Snow, the highly respected journalist, author and broadcaster, perhaps best known for presenting BBC’s “Newsnight” from 1980 to 1997 and for being an indispensable part of election nights. The first words are:

“In August 1814 the United States Army is defeated in battle by an invading force just outside Washington DC. The US President and his wife have just enough time to pack their

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belongings and escape from the White House before the enemy enters. The invaders tuck into dinner they find still on the dining room table and then set fire to the place.”

Mr Snow observes that 200 years ago Britain was America’s bitterest enemy. Today, the two countries are close friends. He describes the invasion of Washington DC as

“this unparalleled moment in American history”

and remarks on

“its far-reaching consequences for both sides—and Britain’s and America’s decision never again to fight each other.”

The events in question were no small retaliatory incursion into the US by Britain. British forces—soldiers and sailors—totalled 4,500, including many who had fought Napoleon. The Royal Navy had some 50 ships in battle readiness. In the book’s introduction, Mr Snow states:

“The British invasion of Washington is not an episode in their history that Americans recall with much relish—any more than the French do the Battle of Waterloo. In Britain, very few people know it happened or even that there was a so called War of 1812.”

That confirms what I mentioned earlier in my speech: the war does not feature in the history curriculum in our country. That wrong needs to be put right. It is not as if the war was a brief affair. It was spread over three years, culminating officially in a treaty on Christmas eve 1814, but with a further battle on 8 January 1815 because news of the treaty, signed in Europe, was not known to either side. Mr Snow says of the war:

“It was actually one of the defining moments in the history of both countries”

and describes Britain and the USA as

“now inseparable friends, then bitter enemies.”

The White House bears the burn marks to this day and, on visits to it, former Prime Minister Tony Blair and our current Prime Minister—in March 2012—referred to the historic event of 24 August 1814 when British forces set fire to the White House. As an historic footnote I will mention that the White House was staffed largely by slaves.

Mr Snow’s book concentrates on the final three weeks of the war, the scene for which he summarises as follows:

“The fierce struggle of August and September 1814 was one of the last bouts of fighting between two nations that later became the closest of allies. It defines the strengths and weaknesses of each: the British empire—overstretched and arrogant, but fielding a navy and army of experienced veterans who could sweep all before them; the young American republic, struggling with internal divisions but infused with a freshness of spirit and patriotic fervour. And underlying this often bloody conflict is the grudging respect that often marked dealings between the two sides. This was after all a battle between two supposedly civilised nations who spoke the same language, shared family ties and were neither of them bent on the other’s outright ruin.”

Why is such an historic point in our nation’s history not taught as part of the history curriculum? If it is okay for a single battle in 1805 and another single battle in 1815 to be on the curriculum, why not the entire North American war of 1812-14?

As perhaps we might expect, the Americans claim that they won the war—well, they would, wouldn’t they? The truth, of course, is that if they had won and taken over British North America—a vast area of the continent—as states of the USA, there would not today be a proud, independent Commonwealth country called Canada, with Queen Elizabeth II as its Head of State.

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But as Peter Snow writes, the events of 14 September 1814, with the British decision neither to continue the naval bombardment at Baltimore nor to proceed to put troops ashore, were interpreted by the Americans

“as a glorious triumph…transformed by American myth-makers into a resounding victory that would become an emblematic moment in US history.”

After Baltimore, Britain and the USA sought to bring the war to a close. Back in Britain, the cost of a foreign war and severe economic pressures at home helped to convince the Government of Lord Liverpool to seek a peace settlement, and the treaty of Ghent was signed on 24 December 1814. Mr Snow observes:

“Both sides abandoned territorial ambitions. Britain renounced any claim to places like Maine, America scrapped any claim to Canada.”

Sadly, it took a month for news to cross the Atlantic. Not knowing of the signing of the treaty in Europe, only two weeks later the armies of Britain and America faced each other just outside New Orleans. The battle that followed was a resounding victory for the Americans, but even if Britain had won, it would have counted for nothing. The compelling words of Mr Snow explain why:

“New Orleans was an utterly futile waste of life: even if the British had triumphed, captured the city and plunged deep into Louisiana, they’d have had to hand every inch of it back under the peace treaty signed a fortnight earlier 5,000 miles away.”

I offer a brief footnote on the war of 1812-14 and Anglo-American relations. While researching my speech, I learned that the words of the national anthem of the United States of America, “The Star-Spangled Banner”, come from a poem written about a battle towards the end of the war. American Francis Scott Key wrote “The Defence of Fort McHenry” after he witnessed British forces bombarding the American fort at Baltimore.

Shortly afterwards, the poem was set to existing music that had been written in Britain. Thus, it is British music that the Americans took for their national anthem. The music was written for words originally known as “The Anacreontic Song”, later as “To Anacreon in Heaven”, which was the official song of the Anacreontic Society, an 18th century gentlemen’s club in London named after the 6th century BC Greek poet Anacreon. The music is attributed to the composer John Stafford Smith, from Gloucester—it is believed he composed it in the mid-1760s while still a teenager—and was first published by The Vocal Magazine in London in 1778.

For a good 100 years “The Star-Spangled Banner” was a well-known patriotic song throughout the United States. It was officially designated as the US national anthem on 3 March 1931. Mr Howarth, when you next see Americans, hand on heart, singing their national anthem, give a smile in the knowledge that it is British music that accompanies their patriotism.

To conclude—and to set this matter in the context of teaching British values—the war of 1812-14 was as important to Britain as the battles of Trafalgar and of Waterloo in 1805 and 1815 respectively. It should thus be given equal prominence in the history curriculum.

11.14 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Mr Edward Timpson): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth.

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“Just imagine foreign troops invading London, defeating the British Army in Hyde Park then marching on Buckingham Palace.

The Queen and Prince Philip order their most precious belongings piled into a lorry and are whisked off to safety before the enemy break in and burn the place down.

Unthinkable? Well, that’s just what the British did to the White House in Washington nearly 200 years ago.

What’s more, in the expectation that their army would beat the British, the American President and his wife had ordered a slap-up meal prepared for 40 guests. They’d been counting on celebrating a victory. Instead they found themselves fleeing for their lives.

When the British invaders in their blood-stained uniforms burst into the White House, they found the table elegantly laid for dinner, meat roasting on spits and the President’s best wine on the sideboard.

Delightedly, they tucked in. One young officer said of the President’s Madeira wine: ‘Never was nectar more grateful to the palates of the gods…’ Afterwards he nipped up to the President’s bedroom and swapped his sweaty tunic for a smartly-ironed presidential shirt.”

Those fine words are not mine, but my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) may recognise them, as they are also by that great man Peter Snow—not from his book, “When Britain Burned the White House: the 1814 Invasion of Washington”, but from an article that he wrote, I suspect to support the book’s publication. What those words do is what my hon. Friend has done this morning: they bring to life that period of Anglo-American relations—if we can say they were relations at that time.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on raising awareness of the North American war of 1812-14, which included that extraordinary event, and of its impact on national and international history, as well as its deep relevance to Essex, which has its own rich heritage. I am sorry that there were not more hon. Members present to absorb the detail of the history lesson available for free to all parliamentarians this morning.

The date 1812 will make many of us think of Tchaikovsky’s overture, or perhaps of other British events at that time. But my hon. Friend made a clear case for ensuring that all those periods of British history that reflect directly on our current place in the modern world are more readily known to many more members of our society.

The Government believe that, as part of a broad and balanced education, all young people should acquire a firm grasp of the history of the country in which they live, and how different events and periods relate to each other. The history curriculum that we published in September 2013 sets out within a clear chronological framework the core knowledge that will enable pupils to know and understand the history of Britain from its first settlers to the development of the institutions that help to define our national life today, as well as understand how that history relates to key events in world history. In doing that, however, we have given teachers more freedom over the detailed content that should be taught.

Of course, there will always be a wide range of views about what pupils should be taught in history lessons. So that everyone could have their say on that, we held a public consultation on the content of the history programmes of study, along with the other reforms that we proposed for the national curriculum. The consultation ran between February and April 2013 and attracted over 17,000 submissions.

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The majority of the new national curriculum will come into force from September 2014, so schools will have had a year to prepare to teach it. To help the transition to the new curriculum, and to give schools more flexibility over how they prepare for it, we have disapplied the majority of the outgoing national curriculum for the academic year 2013-14. Disapplication means that schools still have to teach the subjects of the national curriculum, but they do not have to follow the programmes of study or attainment targets.

The new history curriculum has been well received, and is supported by some of our country’s most eminent historians, including Jeremy Black, David Abulafia, Robert Tombs and Simon Sebag Montefiore—Peter Snow is not on my list, so I cannot give his view, but he will clearly be taking a keen interest in the matter. Indeed, Professor Jeremy Black of the university of Exeter has said:

“You can’t debate our sense of national identity and our national interest unless you understand our national history. This curriculum puts British history first as well, which I think is right. It kicks out the woolly empathy in favour of giving children more of a sense of where we are at that moment between the past and the future.”

Professor Robert Tombs of St John’s college, Cambridge, has said that

“the new History curriculum provides a new coherence for the study of history. It properly focuses on British history, while including a breadth of topics from other parts of the world. It is sufficiently flexible to include local studies, and it gives the opportunity to draw together material over a long period to illustrate change over time.”

Sir Bob Russell: Pupils are being taught about the two great European battles of 1805 and 1815, but those occurred while another war involving Britain was happening on the other side of the Atlantic. Surely that other war is part of the total story of the first 15 years of the 19th century.

Mr Timpson: One reason why we reviewed and changed many aspects of the national curriculum is that too often, particularly at primary school level, children were being taught about events without the context in which they took place. That emphasis has changed in the new curriculum and the great array of teaching talent we now have to teach history enables children to have deeper knowledge of the circumstances in which these events took place.

I commend my hon. Friend on his deep and passionate knowledge, albeit that he admitted today that it has been more recently acquired than he would have hoped. I am sure, Mr Howarth, that you grasped from my opening description of events that the 1812 war was a two-and-a-half-year military conflict between the United States of America and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, its North American colonies and its Indian allies. It was a wide global war, the outcome of which resolved many of the issues that remained from the American war of independence. The war was clearly of lasting significance and many historians argue that it was a defining moment in the establishment of distinct national identities for the United States and Canada, which my hon. Friend made great play of in his speech.

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The war has particular resonance and interest in Colchester and Essex for the reasons my hon. Friend gave, not least because of the involvement of troops from the East Essex Regiment in the attack on Washington, and the occupation and burning down of the White House in 1814. August this year sees the 200th anniversary of that event, and I am sure there will be celebrations in Colchester.

Sir Bob Russell: I do not think there will be any celebrations, but I am hoping that there will be a commemoration.

Mr Timpson: We can argue about how we go about recognising such events. Sometimes they are termed a celebration of our deep history and heritage, but at the back of our mind we should always remember those who fell in battle and their sacrifice for our country.

My hon. Friend asked that the war be added to the history national curriculum, and that is at the centre of this debate. Our new curriculum sets out in a clear chronological framework the core knowledge that will enable pupils to understand the history of Britain from its first settlers to the development of the institutions that help to define our national life today. However, it does not set out every event, person or institution that pupils should be taught about, and there is flexibility for a range of different approaches. Indeed, there is much scope for schools to study the events of the 1812-14 war. Under the statutory requirement for schools to teach about ideas, political power, industry and empire under “Britain 1745-1901” at key stage 3, pupils may be taught about the American war of independence and the subsequent war of 1812-14. I trust that any teacher who can find the time will read Hansard, take that on board and consider it for September.

My hon. Friend asked whether the two world wars were included in the curriculum. They are included in the new history programmes of study and part of the statutory unit on challenges for “Britain, Europe and the wider world 1901 to the present day”. He will know that the Government are providing the opportunity for two students from each state-funded school to visit the first world war battlefields during the commemorative period.

One of the aims of the new curriculum is to allow pupils to gain historical perspective by placing their growing knowledge into different contexts and to understand the connections between local, regional, national and international history; between cultural, economic, military, political, religious and social history; and between short and long-term time scales. That is why the new curriculum also requires the study of history in a local context and suggests that that may be a study in depth linked to an area of national or international history that students may have covered.

For example, in my constituency, many schools teach their pupils about the battle of Nantwich on 25 January 1644, fought between the parliamentarians and the royalists. It was a turning point in the first English civil war. Every year on Holly Holy day, the Sealed Knot troops come to Nantwich in droves to re-enact the battle when the royalists under Lord Byron besieged the town but were overrun and destroyed by the parliamentarians led by Sir Thomas Fairfax—a victory that halted the royalists’ advance and was a major blow

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to King Charles I. That should, of course, be taught in the context of the wider ramifications of the English civil war, but it is a good example of how a local event may be enriching in education, particularly history, in our schools.

Similarly, the North American war and the significant role played by members of the East Essex Regiment is an excellent example of how Essex schools can explore the impact of people from their own local area on national and international history. Having had a history lesson from my hon. Friend, I have no doubt that he will be in great demand in his constituency to give up some of his time to go into schools, albeit as an unqualified teacher, to share the pearls of wisdom he has taken on board since June last year.

The issue is important because it touches on the very heart of what the Government are seeking to do: to give every child the best possible start in life. Education is essential to achieving that aim. I know that view is shared not just in the coalition, but across the House.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important matter. Schools can and should look at it as part of a broader, balanced curriculum. Having had to research it for this debate, I have become more knowledgeable about and interested in the 1812-14 war. I hope that that will spur other hon. Members to go back to their constituencies and find out about local historical events, and use them as a catalyst. History is becoming more and more popular at GCSE, thanks in part to our EBacc performance measure, with an increase of more than 16% in the last year. I hope that more budding historians will want to take up the subject in future.

11.27 am

Sitting suspended.

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British Values: Teaching

[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Mr Peter Bone (in the Chair): The sitting is resumed and we start with a very interesting debate on the teaching of British values.

Mr John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, particularly as you have rightly said that this is a very interesting debate. I hope that everyone will still feel that it is an interesting debate when I have finished speaking.

I am grateful for the chance to have this debate on teaching British values. I have been engaged in this issue for a long time and certainly at least since I became a Home Office Minister in 2001, but obviously I asked for today’s debate following the Government’s recent announcement that all schools will be required to promote British values. In the wake of that announcement and the issues in Birmingham that seem to have provoked it, media coverage has tended to be polarised between supporters of the Government’s proposition and those who treat the whole idea of promoting British values with some derision or concern. I wanted this debate because I do not fit easily into either of those camps. I believe that nation building—the conscious attempt to create a strong cohesive society with a strong national story and shared values—is now a national imperative. It follows, for me, that schools should be in the business of nation building. I do not agree with those who have argued quite recently that talking about Britishness is really rather un-British. That includes, in fact, the Secretary of State for Education.

However, I have real concerns that the Government’s approach is ill judged and may be counter-productive. It is of concern that within days the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister were taking diametrically opposed positions on this issue in the media. That rather suggests that both were more concerned about forthcoming elections than about the promotion of British values, but this issue is too important for the Government to handle it in such an unco-ordinated and disorganised way. I will end my remarks by making a few proposals for an approach that is more rounded and more constructive, but still designed to promote British values.

This is a critical moment. Three years ago in Munich, the Prime Minister ended support for what he called “state multiculturalism”. He did not just say that multiculturalism was dead; he put nothing in its place, even though Britain at that time was continuing to experience rapid social and economic change with large-scale if unplanned immigration.

From the 1960s, Governments had done their best to make an increasingly diverse society work, tackling racism and discrimination, unfairness in public services and disadvantage in education. From 2011, for the first time in more than 50 years, we have had no clear state policy and no clear Government philosophy about how we are all to live together successfully. Of course today’s problems do not start or end with this Government, but this was an unfortunate time to leave the field of play—to

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abandon attempts to set out how a strong and cohesive society could be built. There was a desultory little document on integration from the Department for Communities and Local Government—it was little more than a list of local examples of good practice—and that was it.

For all the strong bonds between people of different backgrounds that exist, not for decades has this country felt so ill at ease with itself and so uncertain about where it is going, so a new initiative to promote British values is significant. It may, in my view, be poorly designed, but rather than dismissing it, we should welcome any sign of renewed interest in how our country works in the future.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate. I represent the most diverse city in Europe. The ethnic minority population of Leicester has now passed 50%. Does he agree that British values may mean something different in Leicester from what they mean in Southampton, London or, for example, the Forest of Dean, and that we should take on board all those differences before we get to a position where we define what British values are?

Mr Denham: That is a very important suggestion. I think we have to find a way to determine, actively and consciously, the common ground and the common story, and that includes Southampton, Leicester, the Forest of Dean and many other places. It is not enough to say that we should all just go on in our own ways in our different places; nor is it possible to say that British values will mean just one thing and that everyone has to agree exactly the same thing. I want to talk this afternoon about how we go through a process of finding what that common ground and common story is, so that rather than some people feeling that they are part of it and others feeling that they are not, everyone feels that they share in it.

I am clear about a few things. I believe that a diverse but sometimes divided Britain needs more than a hope and a prayer that we will all rub along together. Young people need a shared sense of our history and how we came to be sharing this land, and they need that in Southampton, the Forest of Dean and Leicester. They need to understand how our past has shaped our values and, crucially, they need the chance to debate and shape the values that they will share in the years to come.

Those who dismiss the whole idea of promoting strong national values are wrong. In the future, we need a conscious focus on nation building, and schools must play an important role. Multiculturalism has not, in my view, been the failure that some say. Promoting respect for difference, and acceptance and tolerance for new communities, has worked well and, in general, more successfully than in many other European countries that took a different path. However, in promoting respect for difference, multiculturalism failed to emphasise or develop what we hold and value in common. It was clearer about what new communities could expect from established communities than about what was expected from the new communities. The limits of what we could call value-neutral multiculturalism are clear. We need

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more emphasis on what we share, while continuing to value our differences, so I argue that nation building, emphasising what we share as well as valuing difference, must now fill the gap where multiculturalism has been found wanting.

Some have argued in the past that we do not need to share that much. The Parekh report, about 15 years ago, reflected the idea that, provided that we all saw ourselves as citizens under the law or even as communities under the same law, not much else mattered. The Goldsmith report, “Citizenship: Our Common Bond”, was based on a similar, legal view of citizenship. Of course respect for the law is vital and our society would be stronger if everyone understood and respected the laws that currently exist to promote equality, freedom of speech and the right to vote, or to oppose discrimination, incitement and female genital mutilation, but saying that we are simply citizens under the law is not enough. That is just not how anyone feels about a real country. It is nation building that helps us to forge the common national story—the sense of shared identity alongside the many other national, faith, ethnic, cultural or local identities that we hold—and we need those things for a cohesive and successful society.

In 2001, I was a Home Office Minister. That summer, serious riots took place in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham. The conflict was between white working-class young people and young people, overwhelmingly British born, of Pakistani Kashmiri origin. I was asked to lead the response and I appointed a commission headed by Ted Cantle to look into what needed to be done. The Cantle report painted a depressing picture of communities that led “parallel lives”, never mixing or speaking and educated in separate schools. People enjoyed less interaction between communities than their parents had done, because the big factories where everyone worked together had been closed.

I want to refer to what that report said about citizenship and common values. Talking about parallel lives, the report concluded:

“In such a climate, there has been little attempt to develop clear values which focus on what it means to be a citizen of a…multi-racial Britain”.

The report went on to say:

“In order to develop some shared principles of citizenship and ensure ownership across the community, we propose that a well resourced national debate, heavily influenced by younger people, be conducted on an open and honest basis…The resulting principles of a new citizenship should be used to develop a more coherent approach to education, housing, regeneration, employment and other programmes.”

I cannot stress enough the importance of that emphasis on young people’s role, not just in being taught something, but in being able to shape their future and the values they wanted to share together.

Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): This is like a journey back in time. I understand the link between the Cantle report, British values and bringing people together, but is it not the case that this debate has been prompted by what is taking place in schools? The bigger issue that we need to decide is what constitutes a secular education in this country and what limits that places on the activities of parents and governors in that school who probably want to run the school in a different way.

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Mr Denham: I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying. The issues that have arisen in Birmingham are important, and I will come to them in a moment. If the debate was simply about a few schools—the issues that we have seen in Birmingham are not common across the country—that would be an issue to deal with in those few schools. The Government’s response has opened up a bigger debate about how we promote a national story and shared British values, which I think is important and has been neglected for too long. There has been an attempt not to deal with some very difficult issues.

I turn to the Cantle report; I am deliberately going back in time. The report did not meet with universal acclaim. Established racial equality organisations said that its diagnosis was the wrong one and that the problem was poverty and racism. Some Muslim organisations rejected any criticism of how communities had evolved. Liberal—that is, with a small l—voices, as now, rejected any idea of shared British values. Some felt, wrongly, that the problems arose only in a few places. Subsequently, public policy was diverted after the terrorism of 9/11 and 7/7. The riots took place before 9/11 and the report was published just afterwards, so although Cantle had some real influence, the big national debates about shared values that he talked about never took place.

One real legacy was the responsibility placed on all schools in 2005 to promote community cohesion, with Ofsted required to report on how well that was being carried out. That was probably much less ambitious than Cantle had wanted, but it was at least a start. Crucially, however, such work is difficult. Even though the Cantle report said:

“Schools should not be afraid to discuss difficult areas and the young people we met wanted to have this opportunity and should be given a safe environment in which to do so”,

the evidence was that most schools found that difficult. The Select Committee on Home Affairs has said that few teachers felt comfortable with dealing with issues related to terrorism or the wars that were fought in Iraq or Afghanistan. A review of diversity and citizenship in the curriculum found that few pupils had had experiences of talking about things that people in Britain share.

Today, some of those old issues still exist and new ones have arisen. Many schools have seen rapid social and demographic change, so classrooms contain students who have been part of that change and students who come from families who have been disconcerted by it. If our schools, particularly our secondary schools, cannot provide a safe space in which to discuss such issues, that does not mean that students will not talk about them; it just means that they will talk about them in isolation in their own separate groups and communities, and in dangerous places off and online.

Alok Sharma (Reading West) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman is talking about creating a value system that we can all live by. As he knows, a few days ago the Government published a consultative report on independent school standards. They have talked about the fact that we should be promoting the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect, and tolerance for those with different faiths and beliefs. Is that not exactly the sort of common value system that we can all unite around?

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Mr Denham: I will come precisely to that point in due course. I hope that hon. Members in the Chamber will bear with me. I have been through the history, because it is important to understand that we have debated some of these things before. If we do not understand what went wrong in the past, we will not get it right in future. The key point I am trying to make is that unless we support schools and teachers to do such work, none of the regulations or the speeches we make will make any difference to anybody. As Sir Keith Ajegbo’s review of diversity and citizenship reported, such work is not possible without support for teachers and the teaching methods that they need. He made this crucial point:

“In order for young people to explore how we live together in the UK today and to debate the values we share, it is important they consider issues that have shaped the development of UK society – and to understand them through the lens of history.”

Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this important, timely and interesting debate. Following the earlier intervention, I put it to him—I do not say this tritely—that there is a problem in all this, because the right not to share some British values or some part of those values can, in itself, be argued to be a British value. The very act of trying to define this too narrowly can accentuate, rather than lessen, a sense of difference.

Mr Denham: How we handle difference is undoubtedly one of the British characteristics that students need to understand. I will talk about doing it in the right way and doing it in the wrong way in a moment.

Having said that teachers need support, the second point that I need to draw from history is that values mean little without an understanding of the history that has shaped them. Students need to be able to debate and explore values rather than simply being taught them. The Prime Minister spoke recently about Magna Carta. To get from Magna Carta to where we are today, we have to go through quite a period of burning bishops, cutting the heads off kings, fighting civil wars, invading other countries, being invaded and calling it a Glorious Revolution, trade union campaigns, women’s suffrage and all the rest of it. We can make no sense of our British values without understanding the history of how we came to be where we are.

Let me set out my concerns about what the Government are proposing. Hon. Members will have gathered that I agree with and support the idea of promoting British values. First, the Government have spent much of the past four years undoing the good work that was going on in schools. Secondly, they are expending far more energy on constructing a legal basis for intervening in schools than they are on helping teachers to promote British values. There are simpler ways of dealing with the sorts of problems we have seen in Birmingham. Thirdly, the legal definition of British values leaves too many contentious questions unresolved and carries too many risks. Fourthly, all attention has been focused deliberately on one community—the Muslim community—and not enough on addressing all those who will share in shaping Britain’s future. Fifthly, the Government have neglected the fact that we have multiple identities. I am English every bit as much as I am British. British values, as the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester

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East (Keith Vaz), has said, are seen through the prism of many other identities. Finally, there is too little practical support for schools, as I have said.

For four years, the Government have actively undermined good work in schools. Citizenship education has been weakened and Ofsted’s legal duty to inspect school promotion of community cohesion was ended in 2011. The Government promoted schools with greater autonomy to set their own curriculum and determine their own intake. The Government have funded free schools such as the Al-Madinah school in Derby, and they should not be surprised if their rhetoric encouraged the idea that schools could be narrowly tied to one part of the community or one set of parents. Faced with the consequences, the Government are now scrambling for new powers to intervene.

In current law and in the Government’s proposals, British values are set down as democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect, and tolerance of those of different faiths and beliefs. No one will argue much with those. However, twice recently the Prime Minister has given different lists. He has spoken, for example, of accepting personal and social responsibility and of respect for British institutions, but in neither case did he say what he meant. Those are not in the Government’s proposals, and such sloppiness does not bode well for the future. British values cannot mean whatever the Prime Minister of the day, or a Secretary of State, means them to be. British values are crucial, but they are not unchanging. The Britain I was born into was commonly racist and deeply homophobic. Much has changed today.

None of the values listed explicitly challenges racism, sexism or homophobia. We have to dig into the draft regulations to read that British values are to be interpreted as meaning the Equality Act 2010. I wonder how many commentators, or indeed Government Members, realise that the Act is now the legal baseline for British values. I welcome the Act, but even I would hardly describe it as a timeless British value. What that tells us is the importance of students understanding where such statements of values come from and what they mean today. Students have to know the history, the arguments, the campaigns and the political disputes that have led to changing attitudes. It is better to see the Act as a snapshot of where our national debate had reached in 2010. Not everyone will support the Act’s values, which is the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith).

This Parliament has sanctioned gay marriage, despite the opposition of England’s established Church. Upholding the law means respecting gay marriage, but where does that leave the millions of people, of many faiths, who believe that gay marriage is wrong? To me, a key part of Britishness is the principled and practical compromises we reach to handle such differences. Those compromises are complex, subtle, ever-changing and democratic. Those of us who have met concerned constituents will agree that, in the best sense of the word, Britishness does not lend itself to law, but I will make this point: once the Government’s regulations are challenged, as they will be when they are used as the basis to intervene in schools, it will be the courts that define what British values mean. Instead of being dynamic and constantly evolving, judges will say what British values are. Given

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how many Government Members are exercised by what judges have done with the European convention on human rights, I am surprised that the Government want to give judges the power to decide what it is to be British.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): I have massive sympathy with the right hon. Gentleman’s central point that promoting positive values in schools will be difficult because they are always changing and evolving, but does he, in return, have some sympathy with what I think prompted the Government to approach the matter in the first place? Does he recognise that there are certain extreme and intolerant views that must actively be kept from being promoted in schools?

Mr Denham: If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, in a few moments I will directly address what I think the Government should be doing to enable themselves to address situations such as those in Birmingham.

Alok Sharma rose—

Mr Denham: I will take one more intervention.

Alok Sharma: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for being so generous in taking interventions. I agree that the world has changed and society has, in many ways, become much more tolerant. I remember sitting on public transport in Reading when I was a youngster and being subjected to casual racist abuse. That would not happen in a town such as Reading now, or at least people would not get away with it. On the subject of changing values, does he not agree that values such as individual liberty, tolerance and democracy are timeless?

Mr Denham: They are timeless, but our understanding varies. Forgive me for using a trivial example, but when I first came into this House, non-smokers were expected to respect the right of smokers to smoke in Committee Rooms, tea rooms, dining rooms and bars. Today, smokers are expected to respect the liberty of non-smokers not to breathe in their smoke. Liberty has not changed, and this is a silly example, but our understanding of what those values mean changes over time. That is crucial. The idea that our understanding of those values is fixed in time is wrong.

One of the reasons for pursuing that point is that the Government are about to legislate on some of those values more strongly than ever before. We need to anticipate the potential problems. The Government want schools to promote active participation in democracy, and I have no doubt that the Government wish to be able to address schools in which, for example, aggressive advocates of an Islamic caliphate are undermining democracy, but where in law will that leave communities, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Brethren and others, that do not vote, do not advocate the vote and do not bring up their children to vote? We, in a rather British and tolerant way, have never felt the need to bother ourselves with those communities before. The Minister should be careful that we understand what we are getting into when we use the law, rather than the promotion of good practice in schools, to promote British values.

Some of the activities in Birmingham schools that have been described, including the harassment of able teachers, the imposition of narrow dress codes, restricted curriculums and the use of racist stereotyping and

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gender segregation, are unacceptable, but we do not need complex regulations on the promotion of British values to address those activities. The hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) raised this question earlier, and let us say that all publicly funded schools, of any intake or designation, should be required to maintain an environment that is genuinely welcoming to all students of all backgrounds. If we made that our test and our principle and said that failure to maintain such an environment should be the basis of intervention, it would be much clearer, it would be easier to inspect and it would be a proper foundation that respects the fact that there are faith and non-faith schools, and schools with different intakes, while stating that no school can be run in a way such that other children would not wish to go there.

Mr Ward: I accept that point, but the difficulty is in the definition of a secular school, which means that the meaning of “welcoming” is disputed. It is easier to say what “welcoming” means within a faith school, but in a secular school there will be parents who say, “This school, unless it is doing these things in this way, is not welcoming to our children.” That is where the debate becomes very difficult.

Mr Denham: The hon. Gentleman and I probably do not disagree. My father was the head teacher of a Church of England school and my son goes to a Church of England primary school, but I am not a person of faith. I can see a school that is welcoming to children who do not come from a faith background but that has a distinct faith ethos. It is possible to get the right balance between the two.

There are limits to the extent to which anyone can insist that a school follows a narrow practice such that other parents and other children do not feel welcome. We can do much better than the incredibly complex regulations on the promotion of British values that the Government are pursuing. My wording might not be right, but this is the approach I want to take. I do not think there should be any publicly funded school to which any reasonable person would say, “That school would not welcome my child.” Those are the constraints on how far people can demand particular practices, approaches to the curriculum and the promotion of faith, and so on.

I will now make some progress. I have taken longer than I wanted, although I have taken several interventions. I will quickly address the question of British values. Are Education Ministers in Wales, Scotland and, indeed, Northern Ireland advocating a similar message? I hope the Minister will answer that question. If not, why is it that British values will be promoted only to the English? Have we recognised that people in England are more likely to put their English identity first? Have we recognised that in some areas white students are more likely to describe themselves as English, according to the polls, and black and minority ethnic students are more likely to describe themselves as British? Those are not trivial issues for a teacher having discussions in the classroom about the nature of being British. I see no sign in any of the Government’s guidance or discussions that those issues have been considered at all.

The nation building I want must recognise that we all have multiple identities—faith-based, nation-based, ethnicity-based and locality-based—and should not assume

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a single homogeneous whole, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East said. The nation building we need must include many people who currently have widely differing views about the state of Britain. If we think about the challenge that faces us, we all have constituents who feel insecure because they feel that their British or English identities are under threat. They need to accept that the clock cannot be turned back, but they must be reassured and feel that they have a voice.

We all have some constituents who will be among those who recently admitted to rising levels of prejudice. Fail to address that and our society will be strained. We all have newer communities yet to find their full place in our society—here but not yet fully here. We all have those who are happy with the way things are and who welcome change. They can actually be part of the problem if they are likely to dismiss the concerns of their neighbours in their local communities. Nation building means finding common ground and common values that can bring those people together. It does not help if just one community is singled out as the problem, but that is what I fear the Government have done.

Alok Sharma: The right hon. Gentleman is making some interesting points, and I want to go back to this one: he suggested that the Government want us to be homogeneous. I am sure the Minister will respond, but that certainly is not the impression that I have. He talked about what someone is. Well, I am British, but I have an Indian heritage. At the end of the day, the matter is about people integrating into mainstream society and being tolerant—all those common values that we have mentioned before, which I continue to believe are timeless.

Mr Denham: I believe that the hon. Gentleman is right, but I am worried that some of the legalistic ways in which the Government are acting going could end up producing a narrow set of legal definitions that push schools, in their interpretation of Britishness, to precisely the narrow, homogeneous view of the way things are that we do not want to see.

I am also worried that the way in which the Government have handled and responded to Birmingham has tended not to identify the issue as one of bringing together the whole country and people from many different backgrounds, including that of the hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), but to single out one particular community. The Mail on Sunday screams out on its front page: “Cameron tells UK Muslims: Be more British”—I rather fear that some spin doctor somewhere was rather pleased with that story. I do not think that is healthy or helpful. There are real and current concerns about extremism and radicalisation, but the promotion of British values should not be about one community or one faith.

Of course, given the conflicts involving Muslims around the world; the links of faith and family to some of those conflicts; and the pernicious activities of radicalisers and recruiters, there are dangers and challenges for some young Muslims that young people from other communities do not face, but it is all the more important to get such issues right. I fear that Ministers have equated conservative theology with anti-British values and the promotion of extremism. Yet the Government’s own extremism task force concluded:

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“As the greatest risk to our security comes from al-Qaeda and like-minded groups, and terrorist ideologies draw on and make use of extremist ideas, we believe it is also necessary to define the ideology of Islamist extremism. This is a distinct ideology which should not be confused with traditional religious practice.”

We have yet to read Peter Clarke’s report, but I fear that that is the very confusion that Ministers and the Prime Minister have introduced into the debate.

Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way in his most insightful speech. However, his reference to the conflation with conservative religious views concerns me. Some of the media coverage of the Birmingham issue has said that there is a difference between extremist ideology that might breed terrorism and conservative religious values taking hold, as if the latter were acceptable. The latter may be acceptable in theory, but in practice, in those Birmingham schools, it led to girls being excluded from their right to participate fully in the life of the school. To that degree, I would contest that conservative religious values, practically applied in that way, are fundamentally at odds with British values of equality and freedom.

Mr Denham: I would agree. I made it clear that I am not here to defend the practices that were uncovered in Birmingham schools. I was actually going on to make the point explicitly in my speech; if I lose concentration, I will probably end up reading it out anyway.

Here we go—on the next page. As I have said, knowing the difference between religious conservatism and extremism does not mean that we do not tackle unacceptable problems in schools. The hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) got there before I did. She is absolutely right. As I made clear when I was talking about the need to intervene if things go wrong and schools become exclusive, I accept that point.

However, by conflating conservative theology with political radicalism and extremism, the Government have not helped to take the debate forward. It has undoubtedly fuelled fears and concerns in the wider non-Muslim community and alienated the majority of Muslims, who do not support what was going on in the Birmingham schools. It has made that necessary discussion about how we educate young Muslims in our British society probably more difficult. I do not think that the Government have got the issues right, because it comes across as though the challenge is to get one particularly disloyal community into line, when the real challenge is bringing together people from many different communities into a cohesive society with a strong national identity. That is a big enough challenge.

I want to end with five, I hope, constructive and practical proposals. First, I would like to see the Government fill the gap left by their opposition to multiculturalism by endorsing the idea of nation building. It should be public policy to create a strong, cohesive society with a strong national story and shared values.

Secondly, I would like to see the Government shift the emphasis of their approach from constructing legal powers to intervene, based on legal notions of British values, to providing teachers and schools with the powers and resources they need to do that job well.

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Thirdly, the Government should set out a simple test for all publicly funded schools—faith, community, academy or free—that they should be required to maintain an environment that is genuinely open and welcoming to all students of all backgrounds. That, rather than the tortuous test of promoting British values, should be the basis for inspection and intervention.

Fourthly, citizenship and the promotion of strong national values should be restored to their proper place in the curriculum and made part, once again, of Ofsted’s normal inspection regime. As part of that, the Government should take a fresh look at how we ensure that students in mono-cultural or mono-faith schools enjoy wider opportunities to meet, work, study and socialise with those from other schools and other backgrounds.

Finally, the Government should recognise the importance, not just of teaching national values, but of involving young people in debating, exploring and shaping them. Just as British values commonly understood are different today from when I was born, so they will be different in 60 years. It is today’s young people who will, together, decide whether our country works or not.

Mr Peter Bone (in the Chair): It might be helpful for hon. Members present to know that I intend to have the shadow Minister on his feet no later than 3.40 pm.

3.7 pm

Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Mr Bone, I am not sure how long each of us has—about five or six minutes?

Mr Peter Bone (in the Chair): Yes.

Sir Tony Baldry: Well then, the full version of my speech will be found on my website, www.tonybaldry.co.uk. This is the abridged version.

We are grateful to the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) for introducing this debate. I do not think we agree with his analysis.

The inscription on the second world war memorial in my school reads: “Whatever hope is yours, Was my life also”. Later this year, we commemorate the centenary of the start of the great war. A good starting point for defining British values would seem to be exactly what our fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers considered to be the values they were fighting for in those wars.

I think the first value, which I am sure we have learned over the centuries, is that of tolerance—the need to tolerate others and the need, in particular, for religious tolerance. That is perhaps not surprising, because there was a terrible legacy of religious intolerance in this country during the Reformation and the counter-Reformation, which led to our recognising that we needed to get along with and tolerate each other. Unlike some other countries in Europe, in Britain we have generally never had hang-ups about religious emblems, such as crucifixes, being displayed in schools or public buildings.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Tony Baldry: Come on. The hon. Gentleman has 10 minutes; I have only five, for heaven’s sake.

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Of course, tolerance is not absolute. One of the great challenges for liberal democracies that has to be learned is what the acceptable boundaries of tolerance are. In the first week of sixth form at my school, my contemporaries and I were set an essay by our head master, John Ounsted, entitled, “To what extent should the tolerant tolerate the intolerant?” It is good for schools to consider the appropriate way not only to promote tolerance, but to deal effectively with intolerance.

Closely related to the need to understand and learn tolerance is the understanding of mutual respect, or what Quakers have traditionally described as “finding that of God in every man”. I have visited primary and secondary schools in my constituency for more than a third of a century, and my impression is that schools are extremely good at seeking to promote mutual respect among pupils.

Tolerance of others, a belief in freedom and the importance of democracy are, therefore, all fundamental British values. And they are British values—these are not lists. Some of those who have described British values have simply described lists. When John Betjeman was asked to describe Britishness, he wrote of

“Books from Boots’ and country lanes”,

but such things are not values; they are games of word association about things people at any time might associate with Britain, and the word associations are constantly changing. What we need is a focus on values.

In the short time I have, I would like to make a point that it is easy for me, as Second Church Estates Commissioner, to make. Nothing in what the Government propose should be seen as being in any way intended or likely to be anti-Muslim because it seeks to promote British values. At the start of her diamond jubilee year, the Queen made a visit to Lambeth Palace to meet faith leaders. I was fortunate enough to be present in my capacity as Second Church Estates Commissioner. Her Majesty the Queen made a short, but moving speech, which I have no doubt she wrote herself. This was a personal comment. She said:

“This gathering is a reminder of how much we owe the nine major religious traditions represented here…Our religions provide critical guidance for the way we live our lives, and for the way in which we treat each other…Here at Lambeth Palace we should remind ourselves of the significant position of the Church of England in our nation’s life. The concept of our established Church is occasionally misunderstood and, I believe, commonly under-appreciated. Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.

It certainly provides an identity and spiritual dimension for its own many adherents. But also, gently and assuredly, the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely. Woven into the fabric of this country, the Church has helped to build a better society—more and more in active co-operation for the common good with those of other faiths.”

In other words, part of British values is about having the tolerance and mutual respect to respect and, beyond that, protect the free practice of Islam in this country. However—to go back to my earlier comment about the tolerant not tolerating the intolerant—that does not mean protecting the teaching of Islam if that teaching perversely seeks to suggest that Islam is opposed or hostile to other faiths or values.

Her Majesty went on to say:

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“Faith plays a key role in the identity of many millions of people, providing not only a system of belief but also a sense of belonging. It can act as a spur for social action. Indeed, religious groups have a proud track record of helping those in the greatest need, including the sick, the elderly, the lonely and the disadvantaged. They remind us of the responsibilities we have beyond ourselves.”

That is perhaps another important British value: loving one’s neighbour as oneself, accepting personal responsibility and accepting responsibilities to oneself, one’s family and the community in which we find ourselves.

That advice from Her Majesty the Queen was very sensible, and I see no reason why it is not possible to ensure that all schools promote fundamentally decent British values. Those values bring us all together.