First World War: Personnel from the Indian Subcontinent

Baroness Flather Excerpts
Wednesday 18th December 2013

(10 years, 6 months ago)

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Baroness Flather Portrait Baroness Flather (CB)
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My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, for securing this debate. Part of me is sorry that there are not more speakers, and part of me is very glad because it gives me a few more minutes to speak. I hope this is not because of lack of interest: perhaps holidays have started for most people.

This is an important issue and is particularly so for me personally because my father volunteered in the first war—I was going to say “Great War”. Gandhiji said to Indian students that they should volunteer but not fight to kill. So my father was a stretcher bearer in Mesopotamia. Goodness knows what kind of a time he had there. He would not speak about it, which tells us it was a pretty awful time for him. All I know is that he lived on bully beef. I remember him saying that and it was the first time I had heard the word.

Young people who were studying in this country also volunteered because Gandhiji said so. Gandhiji himself was an amazing man who had fought in the Boer War—I know we are not talking about that war—and was at the battle of Spion Kop. Spion Kop was a hill that some noble Lords will know about. All the stretcher bearers at that battle were Indians and Gandhiji held the rank of sergeant-major. It is good to remember his contribution. As the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, said, he actually canvassed people to join the British Army in the first and second wars and said, “We have to save the Empire”. Even Mark Tully got that wrong.

When I was deputy mayor and then mayor of Windsor and Maidenhead, I laid the first wreath on the war memorial. During my mayoralty, one of my fellow councillors asked me if Remembrance Day meant anything to me. Noble Lords might feel the same shock I did that an educated man, an elected councillor, had no idea what the Indians had done in the two world wars. This was so shocking to me I started to think about the memorial mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh. It took me many years to get people to agree to work for it and I am not sure anybody really believed we would get a memorial in the end, but we have one. I note what the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, said about the Indian community. I have been very disappointed indeed by the interest it has shown—or not shown—in the memorial. It is their memorial, built not by the Government but by people giving money. However much I have tried to get them interested in visiting, I have not been very successful. Every year, we have a commemoration—a gathering not a service—when we try to remember the people. The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, asked, “What is war?”. War—whichever war it is—is horrible but we should never forget the contribution of the people and that is what this debate is about.

I remind noble Lords that when the British Expeditionary Force went to France the British standing army was very small and it lost. The first group who came to support them were 150,000 members of the Indian standing army. When they arrived in November they had no warm clothing. It was not just that they were not used to the cold: the army had not thought to provide them with the appropriate clothing. This has happened in many wars. There was also a lot of racism, and many problems with food. Nevertheless, our people were stalwart, and stayed with the Army and fought—and in such a way that they cannot be said to have been just cannon fodder. They were wonderful people and had a very important role to play in both roles.

Brighton Pavilion is an interesting place, because the then Prince of Wales thought that if he put the wounded Indian soldiers in Brighton Pavilion they would feel at home. Those people were from villages and had never seen any kind of palace, not even an Indian one, let alone the English Brighton Pavilion. In any case, they were put there; I hope that they were looked after but do not know whether they were—probably not terribly well, I should not wonder.

We have to work on the curriculum. We have to get some information about the Indian contribution in the curriculum—not just to the First World War, but even more importantly to the Second World War. I urge noble Lords to try their best to influence those who should be influenced.

Atheists and Humanists: Contribution to Society

Baroness Flather Excerpts
Thursday 25th July 2013

(10 years, 11 months ago)

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Baroness Flather Portrait Baroness Flather
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My Lords, in this debate, which the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, has initiated, I feel that it is a great privilege to be able to speak about one’s views. We do not always get that opportunity. This debate is about the contribution that atheists and humanists have made to the United Kingdom and society—indeed, to the world, not just to the United Kingdom. We have never killed anybody in the name of atheism or humanism. We have never harmed anybody in the name of atheism or humanism. I think that is a good start.

If you look at religion and its history and consider how the world would have been without religion, what things would not have happened, and how would that have shaped us today? The noble Lord, Lord Maxton, has hinted and spoken about that, but I would like emphasise it. For a start, we would not have had 9/11, we would not have had 7/7, and we would not have a young soldier being beheaded on the streets of London. Those are just present-day events. We would not have the Crusades. We might not have had the great build-up of problems between Christians and Muslims. So many things have come about through religion that would not have happened. We would not have had the conflict in Northern Ireland, which has already been mentioned. We would not have had the Spanish Inquisition. We would not have had witch hunts. There are so many things about religion historically that are amazingly awful.

What has surprised me today is how few people are here to defend religion. People have not defended religion today; even the Bishops have been very gentle, kind and appreciative of people like me. What has also surprised me is that this debate has been much more about humanism than about atheism. We have not had any real atheists speaking about their views. I am not a humanist. I was elected vice-chairman of the Humanist All-Party Group a few years ago, and I told the members then that I was not a humanist. They said, “Don’t worry, we are a broad church”. Make what you will of it. I am very happy to be with humanists, but I am not one. I resist belonging to any organised group, and that is probably what stops me joining the humanists.

I do not denigrate religion for its own sake, but I find that some of the things for which religion has been responsible are just too awful to think about. Another thing that has not been mentioned today, which I think is extremely important, is the treatment of women. How has religion treated women through the centuries, and how is it still treating women? How many religious people are standing up to fight against that? What is happening to women? We have honour killings, women being beaten and mutilation, which has been mentioned already. There is no end of things. You may say, “It is the Muslims”, but Catholics, particularly, are also greatly at fault. Every Catholic church in Africa says that it is a sin to have family planning or abortion. Children can be born and can die without food, but family planning or abortion must not be allowed. Where are the poor women to go? The men do not care. If a man in Africa has 10 children, he is seen as virile. He does not care whether his children live or die. I asked the new most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury to ask the Anglican churches in Africa to talk about family planning. He said, “I can’t tell them anything. They will think us a colonial power”, but he is the head of the Anglican Church and he should take responsibility to make sure that Anglican churches in Africa at least speak about family planning and look at issues about women’s suffering. For that alone I think religion is to be condemned, because no religion so far has supported women through the ages. If they had, women would not be in the position they are today. I make that point very strongly because it upsets me greatly to see what is happening to women in the world.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham talked about Mother Teresa. Really, Mother Teresa was stocking up for her sainthood. She campaigned constantly against family planning. She took the dying off the streets; what about helping the living? Did she help the living? No, she collected the dying. You have to help the living. You have to change people’s views if you really want sainthood. I do not think sainthood is for people who think about what they are going to get in the next world.

Time is running on, so I will take just a few moments to tell you about the atheists I have most admired: Bertrand Russell; James Watson—I sat next to him at dinner once; Warren Buffett—I have not met him, but I would like to; Jeremy Bentham; and John Stuart Mill, who was Bertrand Russell’s godfather. These people contributed to our thinking, to science and to making a better world. As far as creationism is concerned, the US is still struggling over whether creationism should be taught in schools; now there is also intelligent design, which says that something nudged the universe into creating humans or something like that.

Finally, I became an atheist when I learnt about the Holocaust and read that 3 million Jews had been treated like vermin, and God had not lifted his little finger. I thought, “No, I do not need a personal God”. If he could not save 3 million people, he is not going to do anything for me.

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Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Portrait Baroness Royall of Blaisdon
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My Lords, I, too, am grateful to my noble friend Lord Harrison for providing me with an opportunity to listen to a truly fascinating and wide-ranging debate. I regret that I did not have time to research and read about the religious and philosophical issues that have been raised this afternoon, but my appetite has certainly been whetted and my summer reading pile will certainly be added to as a consequence.

At the moment my head is spinning, but I know that I am proud to be a member of the pluralist Labour Party. I have not had time to clarify my own thoughts but I envy those noble Lords who are so sure of their own beliefs or non-belief. I respect those of all religions and none but I do not respect intolerance in any shape or form, and I utterly condemn oppression and certain practices which are carried out in the name of religion.

I was brought up in the Church of England and it shaped much of my life and my values. However, I now find that I share the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Rees, who said in an interview after he had been awarded the Templeton Prize that although he has no belief he goes to church, which for him is,

“a common traditional ritual which one participates in as part of one’s culture”.

It truly is part of my culture. I love the words and the hymns and I go to church from time to time. There is a certain chapel with the most beautiful stained-glass windows in Gloucester Cathedral where I find solace, but I have no belief in a god or in an afterlife. Does that make me an atheist or a humanist? I do not know, but I certainly espouse the ideals of humanism, so perhaps I am a humanist who likes going to church and who delights in the Church of England’s compassion, companionship and culture. I feel comfortable, however, not having any sort of classification; perhaps I am like the verger mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. Like her, I certainly support the Assisted Dying Bill.

As this debate has confirmed, the distinction between humanism and atheism is blurred, but the universal values of humanism are clear—respecting and promoting freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law; celebrating human achievement, progress and potential; being co-operative, and working for the common good. Those are values that are of course shared by the great religions.

Baroness Flather Portrait Baroness Flather
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The noble Baroness said that the distinction between humanism and atheism is blurred. I think that humanism is a group activity, while atheism is totally personal—it is different.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Portrait Baroness Royall of Blaisdon
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I accept that, but many atheists are also humanists. I do, however, hear what the noble Baroness says.

We have heard this afternoon of many extraordinary British citizens who have made huge contributions to UK society—writers, scientists, philosophers—and today we celebrate the fact that they were atheists or humanists and have made very fine contributions. Most people, however, when learning the economics of Keynes, reading a novel by Ken Follett or Kingsley Amis, listening to a glorious piece of music by Vaughan Williams, or admiring the ceramics of Grayson Perry or a gown by Alexander McQueen, would not know that they were atheists. I was stunned, for example, when I looked at a list of great writers who were or are atheists and humanists, but that is my own ignorance.

There are millions of people today, as throughout history, who are non-religious and who believe that there is no afterlife and that the universe is a natural phenomenon. They conduct their good lives according to a moral code, without the aid of gods or scriptures, but on the basis of reason and humanity. However, they have no idea that they are humanists. If there were greater acknowledgement of the vast contribution of humanists to our country, I wonder whether more people would consider themselves to be humanists and would, for example, opt for a humanist funeral for themselves or their loved ones. More than 600 couples in England and Wales already choose to celebrate their marriage with a humanist ceremony, so I am delighted that, thanks to the amendment tabled by noble Lords and passed in this House, couples of the same and opposite sex will, in the not-too-distant future, be able to choose a humanist marriage. I am proud that noble Lords, as has been mentioned, were able to achieve this in the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act. This Act opens up marriage to more couples who love and commit to each other, so it is fitting that it will also open the way for humanists to marry in a ceremony that reflects their own deeply held beliefs. I agree with noble Lords that the shift in opinion in our own House is the result of the influence of younger people who are free of the burden of discrimination.

For me, it is not people’s beliefs or lack of belief that is important, it is their values, the ethos that governs their life and actions, and the beauty or excellence of their creation. Christians, Sikhs, Jews, Muslims, and Zoroastrians delight in the music of Sir Michael Tippett, or are gripped by the novels of Iain Banks. Atheists and humanists love the poetry of William Blake and the architectural glories of our cathedrals. My late husband Stuart was an atheist. He had strong values and a clear moral code, with which he imbued our children, but he often read the King James version of the Bible; he loved the beauty of the language, while tending towards the Marxist view that religion is the opium of the masses. I do not accuse the church or any other religion of capitalising on poverty or ignorance, but it is a fact that, all over the world, many poor people and those who have little or no access to education cling to religion in the hope of a better afterlife.

One of the questions raised many times today is about the place and influence of religion in our society: does the fact that there is a shift away from religious belief, especially among the young, mean that our society is suffering in some way? There are many reasons why society is changing, often for the better, and why lives are becoming more difficult, but I do not think that lack of religion is one of them. Of course, I recognise the invaluable role that churches and religions play in bringing people together and providing support, especially for the vulnerable. However, that coming together must not result in intolerant tribalism.

While I do not doubt the ability of young people to support each other, which has been mentioned, I agree with the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, that perhaps humanists and Christians should work together in the search for a moral vision for the future, to counter the rampant individualism that has taken root.

It is rightly said, and was said during a debate on an Oral Question last week, that religious schools are often found in the most challenging areas and that they provide an excellent education. This is true, but many non-religious schools are also found in difficult areas and provide an excellent education. While I salute the work of, for example, Church of England schools—there are many in my own forest community —any school with strong leadership can provide a safe microcosm of a good society in which pupils can learn and grow. In that short debate, noble Lords made important points about the crucial need for integrated education in order to ensure community cohesion.

History is littered with conflict between those of different faiths and between those of faith and those of none, but the existence of the 24-hour global media means that tensions elsewhere in the world have a powerful influence on our own communities, which as a consequence feel fragile. I worry that the proliferation of religious schools, including free schools, could mean that tolerance, understanding and community cohesion could be diminished. As the right reverend Prelate said, we must work together with respect, and we must respect each other.

Clearly, the shared values that underpin a school, together with the nurturing of tolerance and understanding, are of the utmost importance, as is the curriculum. I was interested to see that the new national curriculum published earlier this month includes in the primary curriculum for the first time a module on evolution. While this represents significant progress from the current national curriculum, which is to be warmly welcomed, the British Humanist Association points out that it is also a serious step back from the draft programme of study, which included a module on evolution in year four. I certainly support the Teach Evolution, Not Creationism! campaign.

In the past few years we have had debates in this House on freedom of speech and freedom of religion in relation to the Equality Act and, most recently, the same-sex marriage Bill. These freedoms are the cornerstone of our democracy. I was delighted to learn that in June the European Union council of foreign affairs Ministers adopted new guidelines to help the EU promote freedom of religion and belief in countries outside the EU. They protect the non-religious as well as the religious. They also protect the right to change or abandon one’s belief, and the right to freedom of expression, including the right to criticise or mock religion or belief. They commit to protecting individuals and individuals’ rights to hold beliefs, but not to protecting the beliefs themselves. Does the Minister agree that this implies that the European Union will recommend the decriminalisation of blasphemy offences in non-EU countries? I certainly hope so.

Many great atheists and humanists have been mentioned this afternoon, but I will end with a quote from Thomas Paine, a British citizen who made an invaluable and incalculable contribution to the world. In Rights of Man, he wrote that,

“my country is the world, and my religion is to do good”.

Amen to that.

Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill

Baroness Flather Excerpts
Monday 22nd April 2013

(11 years, 2 months ago)

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Baroness Thornton Portrait Baroness Thornton
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My Lords, do I sense that the House would like to move on? I think that is probably the right thing to do.

Baroness Flather Portrait Baroness Flather
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I would like to speak, and the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, wants to speak. We have been waiting for our chance.

Lord Dholakia Portrait Lord Dholakia
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My Lords, I indicated that earlier, but I gave way to the noble Lord, Lord Deben, because I thought he made a very important contribution.

I am delighted to contribute on this amendment and I support the point of view that has been expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh. I served on the former Commission for Racial Equality and its predecessor bodies from its inception in 1965 until 1994, a period of nearly 30 years. Almost all Race Relations Acts made provision for the Commission for Racial Equality, the Community Relations Commission and all those bodies to review the legislation and, if it was inappropriate or lacking, to make recommendations so that the Government had the opportunity to amend it. As we saw in the Race Relations (Amendment) Act, this exercise was carried out by the previous Government.

I owe a special debt of gratitude to my noble friend Lord Avebury. He was elected in Orpington in the same year that I was elected to a county council in Sussex. He has been my mentor all these years, but sometimes friends disagree. My experience is based, like that of many people I meet on a regular basis, on the impact of one’s culture and faith, which to an extent shapes lives both here and abroad.

The first point I wish to make is that, like the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, and almost every one who has spoken, I abhor racial discrimination on any ground of treating people differently. Colleagues in your Lordships’ House will remember that I have in the past 15 to 16 years succeeded in moving amendments to secure equality in a number of legislative measures. Over the past two years, I have chaired a substantial number of consultations with communities and individuals on matters of caste discrimination. Let me make their point of view clear in case there is any doubt: they fully appreciate the need for equality legislation. Indeed, ethnic communities would not have a voice without such legislation. They are adamant that they would not want to deny any disadvantaged group the right to have recourse against discrimination on any grounds. Almost every one of them has made that position very clear.

Caste plays the least significant part in the lives of third and fourth generation youngsters from ethnic communities growing up in this country. We have moved away from the old days and old values of compartmentalising communities based on caste. A generation has grown up seeing no obstacle to crossing the caste divide.

The second point I wish to make is that race relations in this country have always been based on sound research. The work of the former organisation that some may remember, which campaigned against racial discrimination and was headed in its early days by the famous Lord Pitt who sat in the House of Lords, produced evidence which resulted in the first Race Relations Act outlawing discrimination in public places. The substantial evidence produced by the Street report in 1967 identified discrimination in employment, housing and general services and resulted in the introduction of the Race Relations Act 1968. Similar evidence on institutional racism resulted in the introduction of the 1976 race relations legislation. However, in essence, there is a lack of evidence on caste matters. The report produced by the national institute clearly acknowledges that there is no evidence to suggest the existence of large-scale discrimination in this country based on caste.

Communities feel let down that during the passage of the Equality Bill through Parliament, having acknowledged that the available evidence did not indicate that caste discrimination was a significant problem in Britain in the areas covered by discrimination legislation, Parliament proceeded to accept an amendment to the Equality Bill to include caste as an aspect of race by a ministerial decision. By doing so, the Act which was supposedly designed to simplify and streamline discrimination law in Britain seems to have defeated this very objective by including the concept of caste that has eluded clear definition in common parlance, let alone in legal terms—the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh.

However, it would be a big mistake to extend the scope of the act to include caste in Britain without substantial evidence. Laws should be based on sound evidential research. The research by NIESR clearly acknowledges that there is no large-scale caste discrimination in Britain. The sample was far too small to reach a fair conclusion. Therefore, to yield to pressure groups and include caste within the scope of the Act will only rekindle the dying issue of caste.

I fear that we are still studying something that may be on the surface. A generation of people born here have broken the links with caste patterns and they find themselves engulfed in a practice that was prevalent in the early history of the subcontinent. I accept that there may be discriminatory practices—rightly described by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh—where caste may have played some role but there are ways of dealing with this subject. I had discussions with my colleague, Lynne Featherstone, when she was looking at the issue as government Equality Minister and I explained that there are other ways we can tackle this matter in the short term. I welcome the statement issued by Helen Grant, Minister for Women and Equalities in the other place, that education is the right step to take in this matter. I also welcome the contribution on this issue of the EHRC and the Government’s equality officers in examining the nature of caste prejudice and harassment as evidenced by existing studies. This will indicate if the matter should be addressed in future years either by legislation or by another solution. I am happy to assist those who have participated in consultation to set up their own formal structure which could be the basis for eradicating discrimination practices. A conciliation process must be at the forefront of such a strategy. The community can and must provide that. Since the EHRC is now involved, it is right that we reject the amendment until we are better informed.

Baroness Flather Portrait Baroness Flather
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My Lords, I seem to be the last speaker and I will take this opportunity to say what has been in my mind. It is very interesting that we have two Hindus speaking today against this amendment. On the previous occasion one of them was here but did not speak up, yet that was the time to make his points about why we should not have voted in favour of a caste discrimination amendment.

I have found that all Governments in this country have a great belief in so-called “community leaders”. Ever since immigrants first came to this country they have created this myth of community leaders: community leaders know everything about the community; they will tell us what the community wants; they are the important ones. They are not the ones to speak for all communities: they are the ones who shout the loudest. It has always been a big mistake to listen to people who say, “We are the community leaders”. Have you ever seen a woman as a community leader? Have you ever seen any women in any consultation? Have you seen any women among all these men who have been shouting outside the House of Lords about the caste amendment? The Hindus have come together for the first time ever, to my knowledge, to shout about the caste amendment because they feel that this dishonours them in some way. They dishonour themselves: caste is a fact. It is not created by us or in the minds of the British or other people; it is a fact that people discriminate on the basis of caste. It is endemic in social issues like marriage. As far as public things like employment and education are concerned, we have to watch out: we have to say, “No discrimination on the basis of caste”. It is no good our saying, “Leave it for next time”; that happens all the time. There will be more consultation and more evidence, but there is already plenty of evidence of discrimination. As someone has said, if there are six people being discriminated against, we should do something about it. We do not know how many people are discriminated against.

We have been told about the untouchables. Caste is not about untouchability but about someone of a particular caste not being accepted by a person of a higher or different caste. It is about not giving them the same treatment as you give to people of your own caste. In my parents’ house, we were from the merchant caste and had to have a Brahman cook, otherwise people in our house did not eat. None of us were allowed in the kitchen because we would pollute it. I have lived with caste all my life, from childhood.

Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill

Baroness Flather Excerpts
Monday 4th March 2013

(11 years, 3 months ago)

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Lord Alton of Liverpool Portrait Lord Alton of Liverpool
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My Lords, I want briefly to intervene in order to support the amendment that has been laid before this House by my noble and right reverend friend Lord Harries of Pentregarth, and to support the powerful speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Deben, and the intervention by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury.

As I heard their speeches, I was thinking of two things that I have in my study. One is a poster on the wall that says:

“God so loved the world that he did not send a committee”.

I recalled that it was William Wilberforce who, after the abolition of the slave trade, said that the next great challenge was the abolition of the caste system. Here we still are setting up yet more committees and more inquiries. I really do not believe that that is the signal that we want to send today.

The other thing in my study is a terracotta pot that I brought back with me from Uttar Pradesh two years ago. When a Dalit has held that pot, they are required to break it, because nobody else must touch it if they have drunk from that pot. That is what it means, in simple terms, to be untouchable. Those two simple things motivated me to speak in this debate.

I know that my noble friend has pursued this issue with great vigour and doggedly over the years, and I think that the House ought to support him today not least because, as we discovered in the earlier amendment, the importance of making declamatory statements is sometimes crucial in advancing a cause. The Minister should perhaps recall the wise advice that was given to her on an earlier amendment by my noble friend Lord Cormack. He suggested that if she were not able to accept that amendment today, it would be wisest to come back at Third Reading. The same is true with this amendment. She ought to go away and think about it further if she cannot accept the amendment today, not least because of the declamatory nature of not accepting it.

What signal will that send to the extraordinary number of people who remain in India as Dalits, some 170 million of them in addition to the 400,000 in our own country? When the House considers that every single day in India every 18 minutes a crime is committed against a Dalit; every day three Dalit women are raped; two Dalits are murdered; two Dalit houses are burned; 11 Dalits are beaten; that many are impoverished; some half of Dalit children are under-nourished; 12% die before their fifth birthday; vast numbers are uneducated or illiterate; and 45% cannot read or write it is quite clear that we do not need more inquiries or studies. We have to be certain about what it is that we want for ourselves. The noble Lord, Lord Deben, is right: there are values that we hold dear in this country that we stand for and believe in. We must stand firmly on those principles, not suggest to others that somehow or other to import those kinds of conditions into the United Kingdom would ever be acceptable. Furthermore, however important things such as trade relations are—and they are important to British industry in developing cordial and good relations with India or China—none the less, the stand we take on upholding not just human rights but human dignity, and the belief that no one is untouchable and that every person is of equal value, certainly in the sight of God and as they certainly ought to be in the sight of their fellow human beings, are important. For those reasons, I am happy to support the amendment of my noble friend.

Baroness Flather Portrait Baroness Flather
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My Lords, perhaps I may say a few words as the only person here to belong to a caste. As far as I know, there is no other Hindu in the Chamber.

Lord Singh of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Singh of Wimbledon
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Yes, there is. There is the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia.

Baroness Flather Portrait Baroness Flather
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I apologise to the noble Lord. We know very well what a terrible and shameful thing the caste system is for us Indians. Two issues are the most shameful in Hindu culture—caste and dowry. Both have significant effects on people. Dowry leads to the aborting of girl foetuses and the killing of girl children. Caste puts people down; a whole group of people are there to do the worst jobs that no one else will do. That can never be right.

The problem is that Hindus are discriminating against other Hindus. Very few British people understand the caste system or even know what caste means, other than that there are higher and lower castes. Hindus in this country discriminate against lower-caste Hindus. That is so appalling and unacceptable that I cannot understand how it can be allowed to go on. In India, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, the caste system is getting worse, not better. When India became independent in 1947 and Gandhi started a campaign to allow lower-caste people to do all different levels of work, we all thought that by now there would be no caste system in that country. There was a great hope that the caste system would die out. It has not done so but has got worse. People have killed their own children because they have married a person in a different caste. There are organisations in Delhi that find and bring back young people who run away from their villages to escape the wrath of their parents. They pick them up and bring them to their parents, who have them killed. It is not a joke in India. It is horrible.

We have heard that there are laws in India, Bengal, Bangladesh and Nepal. Those laws are not enforced. No one cares about them, and a few rupees will buy you the willingness of anyone from a different caste to help out, so there is no question of the laws being effective. That also applies to the laws against dowry and aborting girl babies. None of those laws is enforced. A law that is not enforced is of no use whatever.

If we were to pass the amendment, we would be making the clearest statement that society can make that such behaviour is unacceptable in this country. We also need to state to our own people, the Hindus: “You cannot come here and behave as if you are in India because there are laws here that will be enforced and will not be overlooked”. I know how some children were treated in schools when I was teaching. That was some years ago, and things have got worse, not better. Unfortunately, there are Hindu organisations that are against the amendment and feel that it is targeting them and saying that high-caste Hindus are the ones to blame. Well, they are to blame if this discrimination happens, because they start it. I hope that today noble Lords will accept this amendment. It is a very small thing, but it will mean a lot to 400,000 people.

Lord Singh of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Singh of Wimbledon
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My Lords, speaking from a Sikh perspective, I give my full support to the amendment. Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, taught, “Ask not a person’s caste but look to the inner light within”. At a time when even the shadow of a lower caste person was said to pollute the food of a higher caste, he instituted the system of langar, where people of all religions and social backgrounds were, and are, welcomed to share a gurdwara meal. The historic Golden Temple in Amritsar, recently visited by the Prime Minister, has, as he will have noticed, four doors at its sides, signifying a welcome to all people regardless of religion or supposed social difference.

Emphasis on the equal dignity of all human beings is central to Sikh teachings. I was slightly bemused by the readiness of some, including ministerial advisors I have met—and we see the same misinformation in the ministerial statement—to display their ignorance of basic Sikh teachings and, in a near-colonial way, to conflate caste, class and all undesirable social discrimination and religions on the subcontinent in the word “caste”. Attitudes of superiority and inferiority are found in all societies. We should remember the media headline “Prince William marries a commoner”.

Caste has a very precise meaning attached to practices associated with the Hindu faith. It has its origin in the desire of the Aryan conquerors of the subcontinent in pre-Vedic times to establish a hierarchy of importance, with priests at the top followed by warriors, those engaged in commerce and then those engaged in more menial tasks. The conquered indigenous people were considered lower than the lowest caste. Accident of birth alone determined a person’s caste. Sadly, thousands of years latter, and despite legislation by the Indian Government, which has been referred to, this hierarchy of importance still lingers on.

I have gone into detail because it is important to understand what we are talking about when we discuss discrimination on grounds of caste. It is discrimination arising from supposed Hindu religious belief, but what passes for religion is not always all it seems. Caste in no way relates to underlying and uplifting ethical Hindu teachings. It is simply questionable culture that has, over the years, managed to attach itself to Hinduism in much the same way as discrimination against women—

Baroness Flather Portrait Baroness Flather
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The caste system was established very early in Hinduism. The Sanskrit for caste is “varna”, which is also the word for colour. The noble Lord mentioned the Aryan conquerors, who were supposed to be lighter skinned. They wanted a division not only on the basis of who would do what but on the basis of colour.

Lord Singh of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Singh of Wimbledon
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I thank the noble Baroness for that. I repeat: caste in no way relates to underlying and uplifting ethical Hindu teachings. It is simply questionable culture that has, over the years, managed to attach itself to Hinduism in much the same way as discrimination against women is seen by some as part of their faith.

The Sikh gurus were acutely aware of such negative cultural practices, and they openly discussed and criticised the prevalence of rituals, superstitions and cultural practices contrary to underlying ethical teachings. At a time when all religions all around the world were emphasising difference and exclusivity, the Sikh gurus stressed the importance of showing respect for sister faiths. The fifth guru, Guru Arjan, showed his respect for Islam by asking a Muslim saint, Mian Mir, to lay the foundation stone of the Golden Temple. The ninth guru, Guru Tegh Bahadhur, gave his life defending the right of Hindus to freedom of worship at a time of forced conversion by the Mogul rulers. At the same time, the gurus taught that people of all faiths must respect fundamental human rights and the equality of all people, including full gender equality.

While I have the greatest respect for a sister faith, I also believe that Hinduism without the old-fashioned concept of caste will be infinitely stronger. Similar negative cultural clutter exists in all our different faiths. Its removal would help religions work together for a fairer society, and it is in that spirit that I support this amendment.

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Lord Avebury Portrait Lord Avebury
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Did my noble friend note the quotation I gave from the NIESR report which talked about the educational effect of legislation? The fact is that because employers would have to discharge their responsibilities, they would educate their workforces and thus the whole of society.

Baroness Flather Portrait Baroness Flather
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Who is going to educate whom? We have put down so many things under education that I should think they could fill a whole blackboard. Without legislation, I do not understand who will give this education and who will be educated.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston
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I hope that, as I continue my remarks, I will be able to answer the points made by my noble friend and the noble Baroness. My noble friend Lord Avebury talked about business only needing to familiarise itself with caste legislation when a case of discrimination occurs. I would argue that that is not the case. Employers and service providers have to familiarise themselves with the law in order to avoid being faced with claims for discrimination. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, asked about the cost of the education initiative. I can inform him that the estimated cost is around £20,000. I should also say that I thought that the contribution made by the noble Lord, Lord Singh, on the history behind caste was very illustrative because it demonstrated the point I have just made in response to my noble friend Lord Avebury about the need, if we were to introduce a law, to educate business in just how complex an issue this is and therefore how much education will be necessary.

The joint initiative between the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Government Equalities Office has already appointed a body called Talk for a Change to take this work forward in partnership with any organisation that wishes to become involved in finding practical, community-based solutions to the problems and harm that caste-based prejudice can cause. Over the next few months, the programme will see Talk for a Change running a series of regional workshops that will engage with individuals and organisations from local communities to explore the nature and sensitivities of the caste system and the emotional harm that caste prejudice and discrimination can cause. In response to a point made by my noble friend Lord Deben, I say that the workshops will also be used to raise awareness within those communities of the channels of redress that are already open to those who feel themselves to have been victims of caste prejudice, discrimination or harassment. The outcomes from these events will be used to provide material that can be made available to local authorities, schools, colleges, employers, the police and any others who may come into contact with caste-related issues. The details of how those who wish to participate in this project can get involved will be available shortly on the Talk for a Change website, and we will also ensure that these projects are widely advertised.

We believe that this education programme, which will explore all the issues, not just those covered by discrimination legislation, is an appropriate and targeted way of dealing with incidents related to caste that are not already susceptible to the criminal law or other remedies such as employment law or informal grievance procedures. However, that is not all we are doing. As has already been referred to, the Equality and Human Rights Commission was mentioned several times during our debate in Committee as an important player in this issue. We have been in discussions with the commission about caste discrimination, and both the Government Equalities Office and the commission have agreed that it would be useful to examine the evidence from existing studies and the extent to which different approaches might address the problem. This work will not duplicate the previous work undertaken in the area, such as the NIESR report.

In response to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, and my noble friend Lord Avebury, who I think used the term Groundhog Day when commenting on this issue, let me make it absolutely clear how this is going to be different. NIESR carried out primary research to determine whether caste prejudice and discrimination exists in Great Britain. That research included discussions with a range of organisations and interviews with individuals who have claimed to be the victims of such behaviour. The commission will use the evidence that is currently available as part of its consideration of the nature of caste prejudice and harassment and the extent to which this problem is likely to be addressed by legislative or other solutions. The commission intends to publish its findings later this year, which we will of course consider carefully. My noble friend Lord Avebury asked whether a budget had been set aside for the commission to look at this issue. The commission has not requested a budget for this work because, as we debated at length in the previous debate, it is an independent body that takes its own decisions about its workload and spending within its own overall budget.

My noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern raised an important legal matter, and he was supported in doing so by my noble friend Lord Lester. He said that caste is already potentially a subset of race and that perhaps the current existence of the separate power on caste in the Equality Act 2006 detracts from that. It goes without saying that my noble and learned friend knows far more about the law than I could ever begin to know myself, and whenever he intervenes to make a point, I consider it carefully and with great seriousness. However, we are not aware of any case law directly on this point, although I note that my noble friend Lord Lester seemed to suggest that some exists. What I would like to suggest is that, when the commission undertakes its study, this is an area on which it might properly reflect as part of its work. This is precisely the kind of thing that the commission should consider in the work that it is about to do.

Welfare Reform Bill

Baroness Flather Excerpts
Monday 23rd January 2012

(12 years, 5 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Moved by
59A: Clause 94, page 63, line 41, at end insert—
“(ea) make provision so that, prior to the application of the benefit cap, should the relevant amount include an award of universal credit under section 10(1) then the amount included for—(i) the third child shall be reduced to 75 per cent; and(ii) the fourth child shall be reduced to 50 per cent,of that included for the first child;”
Baroness Flather Portrait Baroness Flather
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My Lords, this is a very strange juxtaposition of amendments, because your Lordships have just had your heartstrings pulled at over children and here is my amendment, which suggests that there should be fewer benefits for children for various reasons that I shall try to explain.

I should like to make two apologies, with qualifications. The first is to the noble Lord McKenzie of Luton, who said that he did not want to hear about this matter again in this Chamber. Well, I am sorry, but he will have to. I would also ask him, with respect, to look at what is going on in Luton, since it forms part of his territorial designation. There are a lot of things to be looked at in Luton and I hope that he will do so.

My other apology is to Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, because I mentioned only them in my Second Reading speech. I did not mention many white families or many single mothers; nor did I mention the Somalis. There are people in this country who have many children, and it is innocent to think that they would keep having those children were they not helped by the benefits system. They might not stop having children, but they would certainly not have as many if they were not sure of getting the money to look after them. It is extremely important that children are brought into this world because they are wanted and not because it is convenient, because you get a bigger house and because you get more money, which it is absolute nonsense to think is not happening. Your Lordships are kind but also very innocent if you do not know what is going on in this country.

One of the reasons why I moved this amendment is the support I have received from ordinary working people. I have had so much mail—e-mails and letters—asking me to suggest that benefits should stop after two children, not after the fourth. They say, “We cannot afford to have more than two children; we are working and can just about manage. We care for our children, we care about their education, we care about their future and it upsets us greatly to see others having seven or eight. Would these people continue to have so many children if the state did not provide for them?”. It is a matter that should be seriously considered. The cap will take care of some of that, and I am pleased to say that it is time that it did so. I know there are many noble Lords, especially on the opposition Benches, who are against the cap and believe that we are moving in the wrong direction, but we have made this a country of people who rely on handouts and it is about time we stopped.

I was very pleased to hear the noble Lord, Lord Freud, talk about role models. There are no role models in families where there are six or seven children. There is no one who has worked and no one is expected to work. A lot of those parents do not even know which school their children go to; they do not know what they are doing at school. We have large numbers of young unskilled people, especially in places such as Yorkshire and Lancashire, and especially the boys. It is the boys we need to worry about; they need to be skilled and to attend courses that will teach them basic skills such as plumbing, electrics or carpentry; they must become skilled at something. They are neither educated nor skilled and they have no future. They will not work, their children will not work either, and it is very important that the cycle is broken at some stage. If we are to listen to people in this country, the sooner this happens the better it will be. Working people are fed up with the way some people manage to live on benefits.

In my Second Reading speech, I pointed to one other area that is not in this amendment: people being given money to pay for their drugs. That is disastrous. If you give money to people for drugs, why would they want to work? They are disabled because they use drugs, but they get money to buy their drugs, so why would they ever want to get off them and return to work? We are talking about getting people into work and I think we should look carefully at every area.

There is also a huge rise in polygamy in some Pakistani families. I was interviewed about this amendment on the radio and during the broadcast one man said that he had three wives. The interviewer asked him how he managed and he said, “On a rota basis”. I am afraid that a lot of men have more than one wife. The latest fashion is to go to southern Spain, cross over to Morocco and bring back girls. They marry according to Sharia law and the wives live as single mothers in homes of their own. We need to look at what we are doing to this country. How do they get away with it? They have three or four wives and they presumably visit them—as this man said—on a rota basis. This should not be happening. We do not need this kind of behaviour in this country.

Some people seem to think they have no choice when having children: that they just have them. Children are a choice and a responsibility. They need to be looked after and they need to be brought up. Not only that, there has to be fairness between those who work and those who live off taxes. This drastic situation calls for action. I hope the Government will take action and discourage people from having large families unless they are in a position to look after them.

I was privileged to receive a letter from the Prime Minister two days ago. I wish it had arrived earlier. It states that this issue will be looked at under the provisions of the cap. I knew the cap was coming but I did not know exactly what was likely to happen. I wrote to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions but he did not reply. However, I sent a copy to the Prime Minister and he did reply—I felt very privileged by that—and he has put my mind at rest about the issues that are important to the people of this country.

The sooner we tackle this kind of disadvantage—and it is a disadvantage for these children—the better. If you have five children, and even if you get benefits you do not look after them and do not give them education, they are disadvantaged all the way through and they will never work.

I leave your Lordships with two comments that you might like to think about. First, the recent British social attitudes survey is very much against the benefits system. There has never been so much disquiet about the benefits system as there is this time. Secondly, the last time the children being born in this country were counted, 50 per cent were born to mothers born overseas. We need to think about that very seriously if we do not want this country to change totally in its attitudes. I beg to move.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote Portrait Baroness Howe of Idlicote
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My Lords, we are back again to groupings and, like the noble Lord, Lord Newton, I am very much in favour of them. Sadly, in this case it has meant that my amendment has been somewhat delayed. If it had been in the first group of amendments it would have been well and truly dealt with by now. However, I am pleased now to be in a group.

I listened with interest to what my noble friend Lady Flather has said and, although I cannot say that my sympathies are in the same direction, nevertheless it is her view that if you are paid less for the more children you have that will lead to a happier lifestyle. She may be right, but I do not agree with that approach.

Baroness Flather Portrait Baroness Flather
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I did not say that. I said that if people know that they will not continuously keep receiving benefits they might decide not to have so many children, and that if the benefit cap was to come, it would not come as a retrospective.

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Lord Freud Portrait Lord Freud
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My Lords, the effects of Amendments 59A and 61A would be to reduce the level of universal credit awarded in respect of children in larger families who would be subject to the benefit cap. Under this amendment, families who would not be subject to the cap would be able to receive the full amount of the child element of universal credit for their third child and any subsequent children. We recognise that families with more children do require more support and we believe that it is right that this is recognised in universal credit. However, as I have said, we also believe that there should be a limit to the overall amount of financial support that households on out-of-work benefits can expect to receive in welfare payments. That is why we intend introducing the benefit cap. We believe that this is the most appropriate way to address this issue as in future people will have to understand that there is a limit to the amount of benefit the state can afford to pay them.

I move now to Amendments 61ZB, 61ZC and 61ZD. These would require us to replace the national cap based on median earned income earnings with regional caps based on the local average weekly costs of private rented accommodation, the local average weekly cost of childcare and the local average weekly earnings. Given that we will not take childcare payments into account, this part of the amendment is obviously unnecessary. More generally, while the Chancellor may be asking the independent pay review bodies to consider how public sector pay can be made more responsive to local labour markets, we do not have a regionalised benefits system and it would not make sense to regionalise the cap without that. In addition, the approach suggested by the noble Baroness would be extremely expensive to administer, add considerable complexity to the benefits system and would be a recipe for confusion for claimants and staff.

On my noble friend Lady Tyler’s point that the cap disadvantages people living in London, given that many working age households with adults in work cannot afford to live in central London—or, indeed, central-ish London—it is not right for the taxpayer to subsidise households on out-of-work benefits who do so. In answer to the point raised by both my noble friend Lady Tyler and the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, on whether I would see London Councils, I would be happy to see London Councils if it asks to see me—if it wants to see me—although it would probably be best to meet in the context of discussing the regulations that will implement this measure.

Both these sets of amendments are about how we set the maximum amount available to people. We believe our approach is fair and simple. When we introduce the cap, we intend to use a method that, by looking at median earned income after tax and national insurance for all working families, will strike the right balance between providing support for families—promoting fairness between those out of work on benefits and those in work—and ensuring clear financial incentives to work.

Before I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment, I would like to make it clear that the Government see Amendment 61A as directly consequential on Amendment 59A and Amendments 61ZC and 61ZD as directly consequential on Amendment 61ZB. So, if we divide on Amendment 59A, a further Division would be required should the noble Baroness wish to press Amendments 61ZB, 61ZC or 61ZD to a vote. I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Flather Portrait Baroness Flather
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My Lords, I will just say a few words about what has been said about my amendment. I was very surprised to hear the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie of Luton, say that the Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Indians all have the same aspirations. I am sorry to say that I do not agree with that. I am afraid the aspirations of Indians are very high, but the aspirations of Bangladeshis and Pakistanis do not come up to the same level, as they do not have as much interest in education as in Indian communities. The Indian communities are mostly in work—more in work than any other community except for the Poles. A survey by Channel 4 said that the highest number of taxpayers of the immigrant communities were the Indians and the Poles. I would like there to be a little more consideration of the fact that Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities in Tower Hamlets, in Yorkshire and in Lancashire are not doing well. Whatever way could be found to help them to do well would be a good thing.

Lord McKenzie of Luton Portrait Lord McKenzie of Luton
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: My Lords, I do not wish to be unkind, but we do not have to subject ourselves to this nonsense, do we? This is absolutely outrageous.

Baroness Flather Portrait Baroness Flather
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My Lords, forgive me, but I thought I was a Peer here, and being a Peer means being equal.

Amendment 59A withdrawn.

Welfare Reform Bill

Baroness Flather Excerpts
Tuesday 13th September 2011

(12 years, 9 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Flather Portrait Baroness Flather
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My Lords, I found this Bill very difficult to understand. I have no experience in this field, and I am not connected to any organisation or to any of the issues that have been mentioned by many noble Lords, but, like everybody else, I have received a great deal of correspondence and I have tried my best to read as much of it as possible.

I have always felt that our welfare system should first and foremost be looking after the most vulnerable. That goes without saying. What is the welfare system for? It is to look after those who need it most. What many of us resent is feeling that it is sometimes used by people who should not be using it. It is sometimes used fraudulently, and we sometimes see people who are fit and healthy not working when jobs are available. If there are no jobs available, that is a different matter, but they have preferences and say that they will not take this job or that job, but taxpayers should have some preferences as well about who they would like to pay for.

As far as the vulnerable, the elderly and the disabled are concerned, I wholeheartedly support all of what has been said, and I look forward to the amendments that will come up to improve the Bill. My husband is very disabled, although fortunately we have not had to depend on benefits, but every little bit that he gets is helpful. It is very sad when one partner in a couple is disabled and gets worse and the other partner who tries to be a carer gets older. That is our case, because I can no longer look after my husband.

If somebody has drug dependency, they are on benefits and they also get paid for their drugs. What reason is there for them to get off drugs? Not only are they treated as disabled but they have their drugs paid for. There is no incentive to get off drugs. These sorts of things worry me, and I hope that they will be looked at.

I was extremely pleased to hear the Minister say in his opening remarks that the benefits of a person who takes a job will be protected and their universal credit can be reinstated if the job does not work out, because I have often felt that people are afraid to take a job because they are afraid that it will be very difficult to get their benefits reinstated. In fact, if I had seen the opening remarks of the Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, I would probably have understood the Bill a lot better, but I did not hear them until I came here.

I want to introduce an utterly controversial idea. I expect that it will not find much favour, but it has been on my mind, and I am often controversial in what I say. I feel that people should not be getting the full raft of benefits for any number of children. I feel that the first two children should get a full raft of benefits, the third child should get three-quarters and the fourth child should get a half. I say this, especially after the recent riots, because we need to give responsibility for bringing up children back to the parents. It is very easy to produce a child, but it is not very easy to bring it up. I hear parents saying, “The school should teach them that,” or “The school should do that”, as if the state should take care of everything. The school has so much less time with a child than the parents do. I think it is time to make parents responsible for at least some part of bringing up their children.

The minority communities in this country, particularly the Pakistanis and the Bangladeshis, have very large numbers of children and the money that follows the child is an attraction. Nobody likes to accept that or to talk about it because it is supposed to be very politically incorrect. Well, I am politically incorrect, and there is no doubt that six or seven children give you a far larger income than three or four. I think it is about time that we stop people using children as a means of increasing the amount of money that they receive or of getting a bigger house.

In the countries of origin, these people—Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and even Indians—have large families because there is no safety net. When you get old, it is only your children who are going to look after you. That does not apply here. Every old person will have their pension and will be looked after. It is time to introduce the pattern of this country and to tell people that they must start following it. At the bottom of the education league tables are the Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, and top of the league are the Chinese and Indians. Indians have fallen into the pattern here. They do not have large families because they are like the Jews: they want their children to be educated. This is the other problem: there is no emphasis on education in the Pakistani and Bangladeshi families. If there was, there would be no problem. But we have a large number of young people, particularly young men, who have very few skills and very basic education and they are not really skilled to do any work even if the work were available.

It concerns me that we do not say anything, we do not do anything and we do not send any message that this is not acceptable. Having a child is easy; bringing up a child is difficult. The recent riots have told us that parents need to take responsibility for their children.