The Government’s Integration Strategy, Creating the Conditions for Integration was published a year ago on 21 February 2012. Since becoming a minister a few months ago, this is one of the areas about which I’ve had some of the strongest feedback from party members.
The views I’ve heard range from “the strategy is welcome, but not enough” to “it isn’t a serious substitute for a strategy to tackle racism and racial injustice”. Some have said that the document skates over the fact that integration is a two way process of mutual accommodation. Those with this view argue that there’s too much emphasis on creating (even imposing) a shared so-called “British identity”, rather than celebrating and sharing diversity.
I’m keen to hear more views on these issues although I also hope there will be an opportunity for more party members to appreciate the very wide ranging action that the coalition government is taking – with significant input from us.
Take the issue of diversity. I celebrate diversity. So does Nick Clegg. As he set out in his speech on the open, confident society, we should be “welcoming diversity, but resisting division”. There is a huge difference between “integration” and “assimilation”; the government’s policy is in support of the former and not – as some have suggested – the latter.
One of the triumphs of our multicultural society was of course the Olympics, where athletes including Mo Farah became national heroes and attributed their success to Britain’s multiculturalism. So we’ve shown it can work. But while we’re glad of them, we can’t let these successes distract from the fact that there is still a massive integration challenge to overcome.
Skin colour and race are among the biggest barriers to people feeling they belong; too often those of different skin colour or race ARE treated differently. And evidence shows that the more discrimination someone faces, the more likely they are to identify with their ethnic group rather than feeling that they’re also part of the wider community. So I want it on record that I completely agree: to create a multicultural society, as Nick has defined it, and to achieve the aims of the Integration Strategy we need to tackle racism.
I want to be very clear that the Integration Strategy isn’t how it would have looked if it had been entirely written by Liberal Democrats. It’s the product of compromise. Nor is it the last word on what the Government is doing on these issues. For example, the report Nick commissioned Andrew Stunell and me to write on BME access to finance is due to report shortly. Jo Swinson is undertaking some excellent work on stuck groups.
But having said that, there’s a lot in the strategy that we as Liberal Democrats should strongly support:
- It provides some real solutions on how to encourage integration, for example, through supporting projects that pioneer innovative ideas and encourage integration, such as National Inter faith Week and projects aimed at knocking down barriers between communities through sports and music. Now I know that racism and exclusion have a myriad of complex causes that need bespoke and strategic approaches to tackle them, and I for one don’t want to patronise anyone by suggesting that giving money to the Girl Guides is going to solve everything in one fell swoop. But I firmly believe that these integration projects are one part of the solution.
- One of the key projects, which is worth singling out, is Faith Matters’ Tell MAMA project, which records and provides support to those suffering from hate crime. The Government’s drive to stamp out anti-Muslim hatred is completely right, and I pay tribute to the work Fiyaz Mughal and MAMA are doing. We cannot allow anti-Muslim sentiment to become acceptable, and in places where it has taken root, we have to throw the kitchen sink at weeding it out.
- Also, in line with a solid Lib Dem principle that local communities know their own local areas best, the strategy moves away from a top-down, Whitehall-led approach that characterised so much of what Labour did, and enables local authorities, communities, businesses and voluntary bodies to lead integration in their local areas. That’s not to say that Whitehall isn’t interested anymore though – there’s a monthly programme board which provides challenge and scrutiny, and I take a close interest, as does Baroness Warsi, Minister for Faith and Communities.
- And we should also welcome the work the government is doing in supporting local councils tackle extremism. Councils whose residents have been most affected by the work of groups such as EDL are working with us to develop strategies to minimise the impact of such organisations.
I also want to be clear that the Integration Strategy isn’t a standalone document – it works alongside the Social Mobility Strategy and the Equality Strategy. Together, these documents provide a comprehensive, cross-departmental approach to creating a society where everyone, no matter what their race, gender or background, can live and work successfully together. This is completely in line with the Liberal Democrat commitment to social justice. That’s how I believe we need to tackle racism. As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation concluded in Tackling the Roots of Racism, to tackle racism, we have to also tackle structural segregation and poverty. Schools, colleges, universities, museums and arts and sports venues have an important role to play in combating everyday racism. And racism depends on context – there is no one cause of racism or one solution to racism.
Of course we must speak out against racism. Racism, discrimination and intolerance, wherever they occur. Inequalities of this kind have no place in a modern Britain and we as Liberal Democrats will not stand for them.
* Don Foster is MP for Bath, Liberal Democrat Chief Whip and Coalition Deputy Chief Whip.