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Tuesday, 11 December, 2001, 13:33 GMT
Blunkett urges citizenship debate
Home Secretary David Blunkett with community leaders in Balsall Heath, Birmingham
Sensitive issues must be tackled, says Blunkett
Home Secretary David Blunkett is calling for a national debate on the rights and responsibilities of being a British citizen.

Mr Blunkett spoke after the blame for violence last summer in northern English towns was put on "shockingly" divided communities being stirred up by right-wing groups.

If we can't say these things and have an open debate without people talking about racism, then our democracy is dead

David Blunkett
The home secretary says the findings raise "profound issues for our society" and agrees with riot report author Ted Cantle that these cannot be "tip-toed around".

Among the suggestions is for a US-style statement of allegiance to be drawn up - once a national debate had decided what the rights and responsibilities of citizenship are.

Whilst the violence seen in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford was inexcusable, the findings showed serious social problems lay behind the troubles.

Communities first

Speaking in Balsall Heath, Birmingham, Mr Blunkett said a sense of local community should be built into the idea of nationhood.

He urged the media to give space for a "real debate about how to unify our country against the racists, against the dividers, against criminals and exploiters that make our inner cities difficult to live in".

The government needed to tackle racism head on, to provide resources more flexibly and without the current "plethora of pigeon holes".

But communities had a responsibility to take up the challenge themselves, said Mr Blunkett.

Gurbux Singh, chairman of the Campaign for Racial Equality
Gurbux Singh says the approach to divisions has been too tentative
He held up Balsall Heath, an area which seven years ago took new action to root out drugs and prostitution, as a "shining example" of what was possible.

As he pushes for public debate on citizenship, Mr Blunkett is repeating the kind of call for ethnic minorities to "belong" in the UK that caused controversy at the weekend.

He acknowledged the dangers of tackling the sensitive issues but said he was right to speak out.

"The world is sick and tired of politicians that talk in bland platitudes," Mr Blunkett continued.

Earlier, he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme democracy in the UK "is dead" if fears over accusations of racism stifle open debate about key issues.

Parental preference

Faith schools come under fire in one of the Home Office-sponsored reports into the summer rioting in Bradford, Oldham and Burnley.

The report said: "A significant problem is posed by existing and future monocultural schools, which can add significantly to the separation of communities."

Single faith schools should give at least a quarter of their places to children from other religions or cultures, it proposes.

Oliver Letwin, shadow home secretary
Letwin says Blunkett is no extremist
Speaking before the report's release, Mr Blunkett pointed to other cultural conflicts that saw many young people disadvantaged.

In the late 1980s, he pressed for the expansion of faith schools to be blocked but the former education secretary now says that was a mistake because parents and communities had fought to keep those schools.

"If you want to open a Russian front then you have never read about Napoleon or the Second World War," Mr Blunkett told Today.

Mr Blunkett said if some religions could have faith schools, it was unfair not to allow other communities their desire to follow suit.

English lessons

Shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin defended Mr Blunkett against accusations his comments, welcomed by the far-right British National Party, would encourage racism.

Mr Blunkett was in fact striving for a more open and tolerant society, said Mr Letwin.

The Conservative spokesman continued: "I think it's reasonable that when people come to the UK and seek naturalisation, to become UK citizens as happened in my own family, they should feel allegiance to the state."

Mr Blunkett's call for a debate on British citizenship was backed too by Gurbux Singh, chairman of the Campaign for Racial Equality, although he said discussion should not revolve around a single national identity.

Mr Singh said: "For too long we have had a tentative, cautious approach to debating the problems of divided people and fragmented communities."

Simon Hughes, Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said the new reports offered the chance for a wide canvassing of views so "these troubled areas can move forward together".

The BBC's Guto Harri
"Questionning the cultural background of ethnic minorities was bound to cause offence"
The BBC's Danny Shaw
speaks to young people in the town of Oldham about David Blunkett's remarks
British National Party Chairman, Nick Griffin
"He is trying to shore up the white, working class vote"
Find out more about the violence in northern England during the summer of 2001




See also:

26 Oct 01 | UK Politics
10 Dec 01 | UK Politics
11 Dec 01 | England
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