|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, for initiating this debate, although I confess that I looked forward to the occasion without much enthusiasm. That is partly because I always found citizenship a paralysingly boring subject at schoolthat was probably because it was badly taughtand I much preferred history, and partly because I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, that one does not feel very warm towards the concept of Britishness. One feels even cooler towards the current trendy obsession with the subject, as instanced by diverse conferences
2 Feb 2006 : Column 372
organised by think-tanks, BBC producers, and the faintly absurd and patronising comments made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer the other day.
The act of being concerned with Britishness is quite a shallow business. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, made that point very clearly. It is also rather an offshore subject in the sense that it is an idea that is vigorously discussed outside this country, and is a silhouette visible or interesting only when seen from afar and in comparison with other nations' cultures and customs. In short, it is amusing to discuss on the cosy overseas weekend conference circuit, but I do not believe that it is a serious subject to which we should give very much time here.
Having made those rather unhelpful remarks, I acknowledge that we have a debate, and I want to add a few thoughts to it. First, surely the most obvious symbol of our country, nationhood and character is where we are now standing and sittingour Parliament. If we want to concentrate on the health and cohesion of our countryit is perfectly reasonable that we should be concerned by itwe could do no better than put Parliament, and the respect that it commands and ought to command, at the centre of our efforts. It is interesting alsothis has come up in your Lordships' debatethat we still have to decide as a nation, and, indeed, as a Parliament, whether we are a Parliament of the Union in a unitary state or a Parliament within a federal, devolved kingdom. The issue has not been worked out yet. Some people may think that it is manageable, but the rumbling and continuing West Lothian question tells us that it has not been resolved. In due course that issue will explode at a certain point in our future political history, and it will be interesting to see how we all deal with it.
Pollsters tell us that there has been a huge decline in public trust in Parliament. However, that is a suspect conclusion. I sense that the noble Lord, Lord Smith, said that as well. The decline may certainly apply to politicians, parties, governments, TV interviewers and the like, but I still insist on believingI have seen no evidence to the contrarythat Parliament is loved and respected by the British, not least because, for all its unfortunate moments, it works rather well. It works rather well because we have two Chambers, one entirely democratically electedsometimes it is magnificent and there are some golden and brilliant moments in the other place, but inevitably it is highly vulnerable to all the short-term fashions, fears, panics and impulses of a popular assembly. The other Chamber is a most successful cooling Chamber that can insist on second thoughts and delays, and does, as recent days have shown all too clearly.
I do not want, any more than anyone else, to turn this into yet another debate on Lords reform or the constitution, so let me pass from those thoughts to a second subject. It is one that invariably comes up when questions of national identity are discussed and when Britishness is on the menu; that is, immigration and the fear that the whole concept of Britishness has been or could be captured by the far Right and the flag-waving insular mentality. In fact we are all immigrants. Britain today has been made almost throughout its history by
2 Feb 2006 : Column 373
wave after wave of immigrant peoplesSaxons, Danes, Norse, Norman, Mediterranean, Irish, French, Spanish, Huguenots, Jews, Muslims, Indians and Pakistanis.
We are a nation of immigrants and we have largely imported tastes, as the noble Baroness, Lady Young, reminded us in her marvellous speech. Some historians like romanticising the Celts, the pure Brits supposed to have been here before the Romans came. I suspect this is probably mythology put together around the beginning of the 19th century, when Napoleon was the enemy and the thought that we might all have been originally French or Norman was too awful to contemplate. We could not bear the idea that history began in 1066, so we invented a lot of stuff before that. The heart of the matter is that Britain has always been a melting pot. We are not a narrow racial group, and I suspect that the melting-pot character is the source from which much of our so-called national character comes, and certainly much of our dynamismwhich, when we care to mobilise it, is considerable.
The issue of melting pots leads to another issue which has again come up in the debatemulticulturalism, which has been a bit of a fashion and much taken up by Ministers. In my view, this was wrong-headed thinking from the start and it has been rightly panned. I strongly agree with Trevor Phillips, chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, that this kind of thinking leads not to cohesion, national unity and a sense of community, but to isolation, alienation and even hostile communities. The prospect always seemed ridiculous that people welcomed into our country, whom we wished to live with and to be at ease, should not adapt to the country. It was a simplistic proposition and bound not to bring cultures together but to set them on conflicting paths. To some extent that is what it has done, and we have heard instances of that this afternoon.
The trend was worsened, not helped, by one of the conclusions of the Parekh report. Here I am afraid I disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Young, though I agreed with everything else that she said. I read the report extremely carefully several times, and it comes near to arguing that Britain itself was a racist concept. That view showed a worrying ignorance of the true melting-pot nature of first England and later Britain from its earliest existence.
Finally, there is my most deep-felt and important proposition in this whole sphere. Quite simply, a nation's internal health, cohesion and its sense of purpose are largely determined by that nation's external stance, by its international status and the way it defines, protects and promotes its interests and interprets them. In other words, a clear exposition of our foreign policy purposes helps us mightily to define ourselves within. I feel this so strongly that I recently had the temerity to publish a pamphlet on these matters, which nobody took the slightest notice of. In that pamphlet I tried to explain why I am far from satisfied that Britain's foreign policy today fulfils these essential conditions. Those who want to subcontract our foreign policy, for instance to the European
2 Feb 2006 : Column 374
Union, do not begin to understand this point. On the contrary, the belief that our foreign policy is about "working with our European partners"the sort of mantra of the Foreign and Commonwealth Officeleads up highly negative avenues. If there is to be a loyalty and pride for this country from all the groups and minorities within it, Britain must be a cause worth loving, respecting and working for.
Everyone has a need to have a country and to love it, however unfashionable it may have been to say so in recent years. People, like plants, need soil in which to send down their roots. Those who say we can all do nowadays without a country or content ourselves with trendy notions of the post-modern state, the international community or even some higher European loyalty, are just mistaken. Love of country is not a vague principleit is an everyday necessity.
Of course we need lots of partners; it is a totally interdependent world. For me, "sovereignty and independent foreign policy" does not mean very much at all. Are our European neighbours the right partners? I cannot understand why we do not place our Commonwealth connections much more at the centre of our foreign policy, not least because the Commonwealth now contains several of the world's richest and most dynamic and fast-rising countries. Nothing would do more to bind in and encourage the Commonwealth withinI mean the internal microcosm of the Commonwealth inside our nationthan to recognise that fact.
If we want our country to be strong and unified, and if we want a growing sense of pride in what Britain can do to help the world and of pride in our national story, planting Union Jacks in the garden is frankly not the answer. The answer is to replace our enfeebled foreign policy with one that people admire, with which they can identify, and which lets them feel that we are making our maximum contribution to the stability and prosperity of the globe. If we must talk about Britishness and identity, that is the way, above all, to provide it.
The Attorney-General (Lord Goldsmith): My Lords, it has been a privilege to listen to this debate. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, on initiating it and all other noble Lords who have spoken. This debate will very much merit rereading. I will come back at the end of my observations to the particular suggestion that the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, made about how we might take these issues forward, because they are important. They are not straightforward, and the different slants which noble Lords have brought to this debate and the different aspects which have seemed important to the speakers are an indication of the difficulties.
The debate has been wide-ranging; sometimes it has been a bit further ranging than I am personally prepared to go. The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, raised some important issues about democracy and the state of governance. He will not be surprised to hear that I disagreed profoundly with
2 Feb 2006 : Column 375
much of what he said, but they were interesting observations. The noble Earl gave us an important set of questions to do with Scotland that were soundly based in history, but they raise spectres for the future that I am certainly not prepared to envisage just at the moment. I will leave those alone for the moment. If not unanimity, there was a wide degree of consensus on a number of the issues that have been raised this afternoon. If anything, the debate has been broadly characterised by a consensus approach, although that is not entirely true of what the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said in opening. I very much agree with what my noble friend Lord Soley said about the Respect Action Plan. He made one or two other sideswipes against new Labour; at least he levelled those with a sideswipe or two against the Conservatives as well, so honours are even in that respect.
What did we see by way of consensus? We saw quite a wide consensus that whatever Britishness means it is not about narrow national origins. The noble Lord, Lord Thomson, made it very clear that one can be both Scottish and British; Welsh and British; or Cornish, English and British, as my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer said. I hope I am right in understanding that that is what my noble friend Lord Giddens was getting at when he said that talking about Britishness might be part of the problem. One should perhaps be looking more at what the essence of being British is, rather than some other concept. I will come back to that too.
We also had consensus in the House on the importance of recognising that if tolerance and inclusiveness are part of the hallmarks of being British today, that has sadly not always been the case. The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Hornsey, made that clear. My noble friend Lady Howells, in a moving and sobering address, made that extremely clear as well. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, may have been lucky to feel the way he did when he first came to this country. There are, therefore, important issues of what multiculturalism means.
There has been a degree of consensus that being British is not simply about symbols or institutions, still less about institutions that are unchanged and unchangeable. That is not to deny, contrary to the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, that there may still be importance and merit in the recognition of symbols as a part of British identity.
There has been a wide measure of agreement, if not consensus, that when we look at what we mean by being British and by citizenship, we are looking for something to do with the relationship of people to one another. When my noble friend Lady Massey made that point it received wide support throughout the House and I very much agree with her. Another important issue is the fact that there may be elements of faith in this area. It was good that the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, was able to participate in this debate. I am not sure that I agree
2 Feb 2006 : Column 376
with him that complaining is the best indication of British identity, if that is what his amusing anecdote was designed to meanbut I am sure that it was not.
Has there also been a consensus in the debate that government have a role to play in promoting citizenship? I believe that that is what noble Lords have largely said. The noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, takes a different view about the significance of being British. I hope he will forgive me if I point out that the view he expressed was not the same as that expressed by the leader of his party, who in a recent speech asking whether Britishness matters said that it used to be unfashionable to say so, but now he believed it was right to say so. Well, this is not the House in which one draws attention to changes in policy, nor asks what happened to the proposition that there was not such a thing as society.
I turn to what the Government believe is their responsibility to promote citizenship and what they have been doing. An important starting point is that we are proud of today's multicultural society. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, that it would be wrong to see this country as having a narrow, single racial base. He is absolutely right on that. We also believe strongly in building a society with opportunities for all. Equality is important and equality of opportunity is important. It is now just over a year since we published the Government's strategy to improve race equality and build community cohesionImproving Opportunity, Strengthening Society which brings together practical measures across government to improve opportunities for all in Britain, helping to ensure that a person's ethnicity and race are not barriers to their success.
Against that background, we must look to where concepts of citizenship and belonging fit. National cohesion will depend upon a sense of inclusiveness in the concept of Britishness, something which is accessible to everyone in our society and encourages each individual to play his or her part and to respect others. It rests with all citizens, both children and adults and both new and existing citizens. With that in mind, our strategy has been to look at each of those strands. For example, to achieve the goal of a cohesive Britain it is vital that young people from different communities grow up with a sense of common belonging. We must improve opportunities for young people from all backgrounds to learn and socialise together to develop an inclusive sense of British identity alongside their other cultural identities. That is why the programme of citizenship as a statutory subject in all schools is important. My noble friend Lady Massey and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, referred to that and gave accurate descriptions of the Government's programme. When one looks at the criticisms of where the programme has got, it is right to remember that this is the first time and these are early days. All pupils will be taught about the diversity of national, regional, religious and ethnic identities; the need for mutual respect and understanding; and the other areas to which both noble Baronesses referred.
2 Feb 2006 : Column 377
The Government are conscious of the concerns that have been expressed about how well the subject is being taught. We take those very seriously and measures are being taken to address them. We want to improve the cadre of specialist teachers for citizenship. The measures include increasing the number of places available this year on the training programme for specialist citizenship teachers and a major initiative launched by the Department for Education and Skills on promoting professional development activities in citizenship educationincluding a new citizenship handbook, a pilot for a CPD certificate in citizenship teaching and a school self-evaluation tool. I will certainly ensure that the points made by both noble Baronesses and others are brought to the attention of my colleagues in the DfES. I am sure that they will confirm that we are strongly committed to making this work and that measures are in place to do that.
I should like to touch again on the issue of the Respect Action Plan. I do not agree with the observations made by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace. The Respect Action Plan is only part of the Government's overall package. However, what does the plan do? It includes a concentration on parenting and helping with parenting. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Soley; that that is extremely important if we want to bring up children who respect these values and other citizens. It gives local communities new powersthe power to trigger action so that they can take responsibility for their own communities. It includes taking pride in local communities. Those are important aspects of citizenship, as are the powers which are taken to deal with those who break the rules that all of us need to respect.
We also believe that promoting citizenship in all its aspects does not stop when someone leaves full-time education. That is why we are also piloting Active Learning for Active Citizenship, an action research programme which runs until March of this year. The Government are serious about it. The present scheme is enabling groups excluded from public life to learn how to make their presence felt. The West Midlands Women Impact Group and the Exeter Support for People with Learning Disabilities are just two examples of organisations which have benefited from the pilot. A longer-term concrete product of the programme will be the development and publication, in June 2006, of a national learning framework for active learning for active citizenship which we believe will provide practical guidance aimed at providers, funders and potential learners. I agree with the comments made on the importance of participation in both these areas. The Government accept and agree with that.
I turn from the education of those already settled in the United Kingdom to say a word about what is being done to encourage the integration of new citizensa topic touched on by a number of noble Lordsso that they can make an active contribution to British society from the outset.
2 Feb 2006 : Column 378
We need to develop a society in which people feel welcome. We therefore need to define it by a spirit of mutual understanding and accommodation where there are clear expectations of all citizens, residents old and new. We therefore also need to equip newcomers with the skills they need to make their contribution, culturally and economically. That is why the Government have been promoting a sense of civic citizenship in new migrants through their two-part strategy: the language and citizenship knowledge for new citizens alongside citizenship ceremonies for immigrants granted British citizenship. Noble Lords have not said a great deal about the language and knowledge tests although the subject has been touched on in Questions in the House before. It is hoped that this will help to equip migrants with the information they need to become full and active participants in United Kingdom society. We are not complacent. We will do everything we can to ensure that the tests and the learning behind them meet their combined objectives of not being too onerous and not providing unnecessary obstacles while providing meaningful proof that applicants have made a genuine effort to become aware of UK society.
I strongly support citizenship ceremonies. I heard what noble Lords said about them. I first saw a citizenship ceremony in the United Sates a few years ago and was deeply moved by watching people take the oath. I was particularly moved by the fact that they were being watched by their families, who were so proud to see the achievement. I welcome the introduction of something along the same lines over here. That is being done by treating ceremonies as both family and community occasions. Local authorities are being encouraged to consider how they can include local flavour in the ceremonies by inviting local community and cultural groups and local dignitariespeople of importance in the communityto participate in the ceremonies.
For the same reason, we have piloted "Citizens' Day" in four areas. That is part of a pledge originally outlined in Improving Opportunity, Strengthening Society. Many "Citizens' Day" events focused on volunteering as a key theme, which brings me to a further reason for our interest in citizenship which has been touched on in this debatethe link between the promotion of citizenship and active democratic participation. One of the key programmes is "Together We Can", the Government's action plan for civil renewal launched in June 2005. I invite attention to that programme. It sits alongside the respect agenda and is part of the programme for placing the responsibility on every citizen to behave in a respectful way and to support the community around them in doing the same.
It is clear that citizenship is not only about developing a programme of education for young people and adults, although that is key to our approach, but is much broader than that. Today there has been a degree of consensus, if not unanimity, that we look to find a sense of Britishness and British identity more in shared values than in narrow national origins or geographical origins or even particular
2 Feb 2006 : Column 379
institutions. That was the thrust of the important speech by my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer which looked at whether there is a common vision and sense of belonging for all communities. That vision is defined by common opportunities and mutual expectations of all citizens.
The challenge facing us is how to consider Britishness and citizenship in a way that encompasses the collective contribution that diverse communities make to the country. It is fundamentally important that citizens should not need to choose between their British identity and other cultural identities but that they can and should be proud of bothor perhaps even all three in the case of the Cornish example that I gave before. I hope that my noble friend Lady Howells of St Davids will find that that commitment and that view are a satisfactory answer to her probing question at the end of her important contribution.
"To be British seems to us that we respect the laws, the democratic political structures, and give our allegiance to the state in return for its protection. To be British is to respect those over-arching specific institutions, values and beliefs that bind us all, the different nations and cultures together in peace and in a legal order. To be British does not mean assimilation into common culture so that original identities are lost".
We have not had unanimity today about exactly what all those elements are. I think, with respect, that the issue is much broader than foreign policy. The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, will not be surprised to hear that I profoundly disagreed with some of her opening and middle remarks. We have previously debated certain aspects of our foreign policy and whether the Government are striking the right balance between national security, freedom for all citizens and the civil liberties of others, and I am not going to go back into that today.
I believe that there is a role for government, but it is not for government alone, to find what Britishness is and to promote citizenship. That needs to be done through discussions, debates and action in schools, educational institutions and communities of all sorts across the country. Citizenship and civic participation must be at the heart of that debate. That is why I welcomed the main thrust of what the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said in a very powerful speech on seeking a constructive cross-party approach to these issues. He referred particularly to a sessional committee of this House, but there may well be other suggestions. I invite him perhaps to formulate his ideas a little further and I will ensure that they are considered. I recognise, as the noble Lord, Lord Howell, and others have said, that groups, think-tanks and others have touched on the subject. We need to look to see that we can do something that adds value to the debate. I welcome the suggestion and look forward to considering further details.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|