Debate on Citizenship and Civic Engagement – why no platforming should be opposed and freedom of speech upheld in universities; why we need to learn to respect difference; why we need to put more resources into the teaching of English to immigrants; why we must emphasise duties and obligations alongside rights.
Monday November 19th 2018
Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)
My Lords, in welcoming the report I will begin by mentioning that for 20 years I held a chair in citizenship at Liverpool John Moores University and created its Foundation for Citizenship, along with the Roscoe lectures, which have attracted audiences of about 1,000 people and which are subsequently made available online.
Many of the more than 140 public lectures which I chaired addressed the issues which have been considered by the Select Committee in its well-judged report. The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, who gave one of those important lectures, spoke earlier in our debate, and many things he said today are things that he flagged in that lecture.
In the aftermath of the London bombings, we held a miniseries of Roscoe lectures entitled “Learning to Live Together”.
At Liverpool Cathedral, the trustee of the local mosque, the secretary of the Hindu cultural organisation, a local rabbi, the Bishop of Liverpool and the Archbishop of Liverpool stood together and simply said, “But not here”.
In a city that describes itself as “the whole world in one city”, Liverpool can teach the rest of the country a thing or two about how people of many diverse backgrounds and traditions can learn to respectfully coexist.
It is a central challenge for our country, and central to the question of values alluded to my noble and right reverend friend Lord Harries and the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson.
Universities are uniquely positioned to provide a place where difference can be moderated, celebrated and understood.
That some universities, including the University of Oxford, have allowed speakers to be no-platformed, is deplorable.
Whether you agree with speakers such as Germaine Greer, Jenni Murray, Tim Stanley or Peter Hitchens is irrelevant.
They should be heard respectfully. That is the essence of free speech: a fundamental principle of civic engagement and good citizenship.
Even worse is the upsurge of anti-Semitism on campuses and within political circles.
Respecting minorities and respecting difference is a central part of who we are. It brings higher education into disrepute when alternative views are suppressed.
Next month will be the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In 1948, that declaration emerged from the ashes of Auschwitz and proclaimed 30 defining articles, from the right to life to the right to free speech and to believe or not believe—and, in Article 21, the right to take part in the government of one’s country directly or through freely chosen representatives.
As the Government consider their response to the Green Paper and the civil society strategy, as well as putting flesh on the committee’s 79 recommendations, they should perhaps see the 70th anniversary as an opportunity to celebrate universal principles for citizenship that resonate with so many of the values which our country embraces and must constantly renew.
They might particularly consider Article 15 in the context of registration of children born in the United Kingdom to be registered as British citizens—an issue on which I and the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, have previously divided your Lordships’ House and which tonight was spoken about eloquently by my noble friend Lord Russell of Liverpool.
Article 15 states categorically:
“Everyone has the right to a nationality”,
“No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality”.
In 1983, when the British Nationality Act came into force, the fee for children’s registration was £35, which means that the current fee is way in excess of inflation.
Today the fee stands at £1,012, which is some £640 in excess of the administrative cost. When that Bill was being debated in 1981, I was in another place.
As a Member of the House of Commons, I participated in proceedings on the British Nationality Act. The Act recognised that some children would be born here and grow up here without parents who were themselves British. The law states that they,
“shall be entitled to be registered as a British citizen”,
and the intention was that they would be able to so register by a straightforward and accessible process.
Ultimately, however, the current fee means that there is a bar to many children being able to register as British and to access their consequent rights.
It is difficult to see how the imposition of a fee designed to generate income for the Home Office far in excess of the cost of registering a child could possibly have been within the contemplation of Parliament.
Certainly, to my knowledge, no discussion of such a purpose formed part of Parliament’s deliberations in 1981. This is not surprising: Parliament did not provide for an express power to set a fee for nationality and immigration applications in excess of the administrative cost until 2007.
It was always Parliament’s intention to focus on and promote the concept and reality of citizenship. It was never the intention that the Home Office should be empowered to prevent the full integration of children into their community by raising fees to the extent that children are denied that legal entitlement.
What does it say to young people, who we should want to be proud to be British, when we deny them the opportunity to come into citizenship in this way?
I return to another issue which I have raised previously, and which led me to seek a meeting with two government Ministers, Brandon Lewis MP and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford.
It concerns an issue touched on earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves: the central importance of the English language, without which no one can engage in civic or even social life.
Refugee Action continues to campaign for a restoration of ESOL funding to its 2009-10 levels.
Will the Minister tell the House when this may happen?
ESOL has been cut in real terms by 60% over that period and, as I discovered when I spent time with a group of Syrian refugees in Liverpool, it particularly hits women, some of whom have been waiting for three years to start English lessons.
The Government should act on Refugee Action’s five recommendations, ensure equal access for women and publish an ESOL strategy for England,
As someone who, as a student longer ago than I care to admit—probably 50 years—volunteered over two summer vacations to teach English to children from overseas, I know that this is a two-way street.
Those who volunteer and take part get as much as those who receive English language teaching.
I know how those children, and their children, have grown up. One is a godchild of mine and I know the contribution they now make to our country. Language is crucial.
In 1999, in a book called Citizen Virtues, I quoted some words which my immigrant, Irish-speaking mother had pinned up on the wall of our kitchen:
“It is in the shelter of each other’s lives that the people live”.
A snapshot of contemporary Britain shows what happens when we stop sheltering and looking out for one another; where toxic loneliness replaces family and community cohesion; when too many feel like losers even when thought to be winners in purely material terms; where without shared values and rules, stable relationships, a sense of duty and a willingness to serve others, we too easily shrink into merely atomised individuals, invariably unhappy, unfulfilled and often alone.
Whether we like it or not, we come from a community, with all its faults and failings, and each of us—with all our own faults and failings—has some gift to return to that community.
Aristotle said that we are not solitary pieces in a game of checkers.
Each of us has a duty to play our part.
Instead of the flaccid language of rights and entitlements, we must emphasise again the duties that we owe to one another.
That is why I welcome the Select Committee’s report and hope that the Government will act on many of its excellent recommendations.