We need a sensible debate on the future of faith schools

Published in the Leicester Mercury newspaper on 27 June 2014

Many people were alarmed by the recent Trojan Horse scandal in Birmingham. A “culture of fear and intimidation” had been created in several schools by hardline Islamists, and there was evidence of an “organised campaign to target certain schools”, according to Ofsted.

We should not make excuses for what happened in Birmingham and we should not brush it under the carpet. It is good that these unauthorised practises have been uncovered and it is right that steps are taken to address the issue.

The schools in question were not faith schools: they were secular schools being run by the local Council and by academy trusts. If they had been faith schools however, then a lot of what was found to be unacceptable would still be going on.

Public appetite for faith schools has diminished significantly. A survey by Opinium found that 58% of people believe faith schools should be abolished and 70% think they should not be state funded.

The central argument against faith schools is that young impressionable children are often taught to accept untruths as truths and to assimilate information through the prism of religion.

Newsnight recently featured a report on 30 private Christian faith schools, where children are taught that evolution isn’t true, and that the earth is only a few thousand years old. This of course contradicts the overwhelming evidence we have which proves that evolution is real and the earth is 4.54 billion years old.

Although the government has banned creationism from being taught in our 7,000 state-funded faith schools, private faith schools continue to operate as a law unto themselves.

Insofar as state funding for faith schools is concerned, to me it seems irrational and counter-intuitive. We don’t allow Council tenants to be housed on the basis of faith or NHS hospitals to have different wards for different religions.

Yet with state-funded faith schools we permit a religious apartheid in our education system, where the next generation of citizens are segregated along doctrinal lines, in accordance with their parent’s beliefs.

The late Christopher Hitchens claimed that faith schools were a “cultural suicide”. He argued that increasing them would turn Britain into somewhere like Lebanon, where people live in sectarian communities, and religious tensions are always simmering away ready to boil over.

Living in a multicultural and multi-faith society is a good thing but we must actively promote integration. We should have secular public services which treat all people equally irrespective of belief.

And all children should receive a well-rounded evidence-based education, with a healthy and inclusive understanding of other faiths and cultures, so as to prepare them for life in modern Britain and the wider world.

Speech to Council on the plight of refugees and asylum seekers

My speech to Council can be viewed here.

Still Human Still HereI whole heartedly support Cllr Clarke’s motion and I’m really glad to see my fellow Labour Councillors taking a proactive and compassionate stance on this important humanitarian issue.

I think I might be one of a few people in this room whose parents and grandparents were in-fact refugees, and I’ve spoken previously on my family’s connection to Uganda.

I was having a conversation with my dad recently and he was telling me about how he and his family arrived in this country with £55 in their pockets.

He was also telling me about how the Ugandan military had put up many checkpoints along the route to the airport.

Families were routinely robbed of what little possessions they had. Worse still, women were taken from queues, only to be raped and murdered indiscriminately.

Ugandan Asian refugees arriving in BritainIt’s quite a horrific part of my own family history, but I think it certainly played an important role in my own upbringing, and the values that my parents instilled in me.

However I think it’s also true to say that we don’t necessarily need to have had a personal experience with the plight of refugees, in order to be able to empathise with it, to understand it and to want to see things change.

So I have a lot of time for decent, conscientious people who recognise that we have a moral human duty to try to help refugees.

And it’s one of the many reasons why I’m so proud to be a Labour Party member and activist, because it is the Labour Party that has always stood up, for the rights of the downtrodden and the disadvantaged. It is the Labour Party that has time again campaigned for social justice, and for Britain to play a leading role in the world, when it comes to offering humanitarian assistance.

Contrast this with the way the current government is playing party politics with the lives of refugees, whipping up fear and resentment, and failing to offer genuine help to many asylum seekers who have temporarily settled in Britain.

Visiting the Leicester Zimbabwean AssociationMany of you will be familiar with the case of my former constituent Evenia Mawongera, a grandmother who had fled to Britain some 10 years ago, who late last year was forcibly deported back to Zimbabwe.

Evenia had the support of her local church and Leicester’s strong and vibrant Zimbabwean community, many of whom live in Beaumont Leys. She also had the support of our City Mayor, the city’s 3 MPs, probably every councillor in this chamber, and many other agencies, community groups and even our local press.

And yet despite the best efforts of Leicester people to help one of their own, Home Secretary Theresa May refused to intervene.

After Evenia was deported back to Zimbabwe the Leicester Mercury ran an article in October 2013, reporting on the concerns of Evenia’s friends and family, who said that they had been unable to reach her, and that they feared for her safety.

Of course there are people who have legitimate fears about newcomers, whether they’re refugees or economic migrants; the biggest of which is an understandable concern about the finite resources that we have as a nation and as a city.

It’s right that these fears are addressed with respect and serious debate. But it’s also right that we understand and explain the very big difference between economic migrants and those who come here as refugees and asylum seekers.

I think another thing that people also worry about is the loss of British culture and British identity, almost as if Britishness was a tangible thing, and the more you dilute it, the weaker it becomes.

Britishness is a mindset and a way of lifeHowever I fundamentally disagree with this. In my view Britishness is a mind-set and a way of life. It exists in the hearts and minds of people who value what it is that makes our country great: from our civil liberties and social freedoms, to our respect for democracy, human rights and the rule of law; from our sense of humour and our shared history, to our love of quirky things and our compassion for people and animals. And it is this sense of British compassion that we must tap into, to convince those in power and ordinary British people that it is both right and proper that we do our bit, to help refugees and asylum seekers.

Persecution abroad should not lead to destitution here, and those who arrive in Britain fearing for their lives, should be given sanctuary, shelter and support, so that they – just like my parents and grandparents – can work hard and contribute, to enriching this great nation of ours.

Is racism on the rise?

Hundreds of thousands of people have now clicked online to view this shocking YouTube video that went viral earlier today. The clip shows a 34-year-old woman shouting racist abuse to strangers on a tram during a seemingly unprovoked tirade. The woman, who has since been arrested by police, was carrying a young toddler on her lap throughout the incident. A full transcript of her racist rant can be found here.

For me this is just the latest race-related story that has caught my attention in recent weeks. Take Irish Fine Gael councillor Darren Scully for example, who was forced to resign as Mayor of Naas after refusing to represent black constituents, because he found them aggressive and bad mannered. Then there’s FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who eventually apologised after facing widespread condemnation for saying that racism isn’t too big a problem in football, and should simply be settled by a handshake.

And who can forget historian David Starkey’s now infamous BBC Newsnight appearance, in which he quoted from Enoch Powell, blamed the August riots on black Jamaican culture and said that “the whites had become black”. Bizarrely he was cleared of making ‘racist’ remarks by Ofcom despite there being more than 100 complaints.

But it’s not just public figures that have been getting into hot water on the topic of race. In the shadow of the ongoing Stephen Lawrence murder trial most of us can recall the findings of the Macpherson Report, which branded the Metropolitan Police as “institutionally racist”, and called for wider reform of the civil service, local government, the NHS, schools and the judiciary, to address issues of institutional racism.

With statistics showing that black people are 26 times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police, and Asian people are 42 times more like to be held under anti-terrorism legislation, a recent study by the Guardian has also found that ethnic minority defendants are far more likely to be jailed for certain crimes than white defendants.

Just last week Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg also accused the banks of racism, claiming that firms owned by individuals of black African backgrounds are 4 times more likely to be denied loans outright, than their white counterparts.

Most of these stories are relatively recent and these are just the ones I know about. Goodness knows how many other similar stories get picked up in regional news reports and local papers up and down the country on a day-to-day basis. Hats off to the Guardian for taking a proactive approach and creating an entire “Race Issues” section on their website.

I’ve always thought of racism as a lot like the common cold: it’s a disgusting condition which rears its ugly head from time-to-time in people from all walks of life, and the best way to avoid catching a bout is to stay away from infected people, i.e. fascists. Most worryingly, racism has also become all too commonplace in our society and for many people it’s just another ordinary part of everyday life.

I believe that despite all our best efforts racism in Britain may well be on the rise, and with the economy in poor shape and levels of unemployment and poverty increasing, things will only get worse before they get better.

I’ve also noticed that people are all too quick to try and find an alternative explanation for language or behaviour that is clearly racist. Sometimes this is through ignorance or naivety, but more often than not it’s because admitting that something is racist can be extremely awkward and unpalatable, particularly in a social setting.

The one thing we can all do to help address the problem is to not let our families and friends get away with adopting a dismissive approach, but instead be direct, vocal and clear about the meaning of racism, and how completely unacceptable it is.

rac·ism

noun /ˈrāˌsizəm/
  1. The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.
  2. Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on such a belief.