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Last Updated: Sunday, 22 October 2006, 11:25 GMT 12:25 UK
Veil controversy
On Sunday 22 October, Huw Edwards interviewed Trevor Phillips, Head of the Commission for Racial Equality.

Please note "BBC Sunday AM" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

Trevor Phillips
Trevor Phillips, Head of the Commission for Racial Equality

HUW EDWARDS: Now, during the week a young teaching assistant from Dewsbury lost her claim for discrimination after she'd been suspended for refusing to take off her veil in class.

But the employment tribunal agreed that Aishah Azmi had been victimised.

She insisted that her veil was not a barrier, and that her ability to teach was in no way affected by it.

But the case has brought the entire debate about multi-cultural Britain and integration into a very sharp focus.

The one man with a unique vantage point is Trevor Phillips, head of the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights that's been created, and he joins us now. Trevor, good to see you.

TREVOR PHILLIPS: Good morning Huw.

HUW EDWARDS: Thanks for joining us. Were you depressed by this debate this week on the veil?

TREVOR PHILLIPS: I was disconcerted by the turn it took I think what started as a perfectly reasonable and timely discussion about how we deal with aspects of our diversity in this society seems to have turned into something really quite ugly.

I this morning would not want to be a British Muslim because what should be a proper conversation between all kinds of British people seems to have turned into the trial of a particular community. And that cannot be right. My job I guess is to be the referee here and to say "stop".

We need to have this conversation but there are rules by which we have this conversation which don't involve this kind of targeting and frankly bullying.

HUW EDWARDS: Did you think that Jack Straw, for example, broke those rules?

TREVOR PHILLIPS: No I don't. I think that Jack Straw started this in a perfectly courteous and proper way. I mean, what he said is, I feel uncomfortable about something and as I say in the piece which I've written for the Sunday Times this morning, that might actually be partly because of Jack's - he's the same generation as I am - something that he's not used to.

We had a, the CRE had an art competition which we had the award of this week, 500 pupils and teachers turned up and the kids. And what is now interesting is this is not something that they feel particularly disturbed about, but we do have to talk about it across the generations, all over the country, to make sure that we reach an accommodation about how to deal with this kind of diversity.

HUW EDWARDS: And it's all to do with the way people feel that they can actually express an opinion on it without feeling that they are being in some way castigated as racist in some cases for bringing up perfectly reasonable points.

There were lots and lots of e-mails, I mean thousands of them, on the BBC website about this. And lots of them basically, Trevor, said this: "I respect somebody's right to wear the veil but maybe I wouldn't be very comfortable with a woman dressed like that teaching my five or six-year old in class because they frankly wouldn't feel very comfortable with it. Now is that a reasonable point to make?

TREVOR PHILLIPS: Well I think we have to separate two things. One is where is dress code required? For example I imagine that the BBC has a dress code for its presenters which today may say wear a tie, do not wear a tie.

And I think in the case of the classroom the issue here, just as it was in relation to the BA check-in staff, does it interfere with your doing the job? And I think that the judgement that was made on the case in the classroom, indeed in, also by the Muslim Council of Britain, was that it probably did interfere with teaching. And therefore I think that the judgement made by the tribunal was correct.

But there is a deeper issue here, which is about how as a society we manage things about which we feel uncomfortable. What I would say is that actually in this country we're pretty good at it. But we need to be generous, we need to be tolerant, we need to give things time. And we need to talk.

Twenty years ago my own community, there are people called Rastafarians who wore their hair, didn't cut their hair, and I remember when I was a young man people thought this was terrifically threatening, and alienating and all the rest of it. Today because we've talked about it, people have got used to people who wear dreadlocks, it's completely unremarkable. And indeed, by the way, the way you wear dreadlocks has changed so that people put them in a hat and so on. We can do this. We just need to be calmer about it, and speak more openly and honestly about our fears.

HUW EDWARDS: Well let's hang onto the idea of being calm about it. If Aishah Azmi pursues this, as she intends to, she intends to appeal, the debate clearly will be prolonged. Would your advice to her be to just stop that, to accept what's been said, or what would you say?

TREVOR PHILLIPS: I'd very much support what her Member of Parliament, Shahid Malik has said. She has made her point, we through the employment tribunal have got a view, I think most people would say honestly this is not one where we absolutely need to pursue it.

And she would be doing everybody, including herself, a great favour, were she to decide either that she were to comply with the requirements for teaching in the classroom, or to decide she didn't want to do that job. It's up to her, but I think she would be doing the nation a favour and, you know, we would all feel I think very warm towards her if she were to day "OK, I understand the issue here and I'm going to take a solution which doesn't involve more working through the courts".

HUW EDWARDS: There's a very disturbing sentence in your piece in the Sunday Times this morning where you talk about the consequences of not handling the integration issue very well, just on a wider context if you like. Em, why do you feel it necessary to warn in such stark terms that there could be violence on the streets?

TREVOR PHILLIPS: The only reason that I put in this way Huw is very simple, that we sometimes forget that the tranquillity that we have as a society, we've been very good at integration over the centuries. But it doesn't come automatically, it doesn't just happen by accident. It is always possible that if you just let things go and you say, OK, it'll alter. But all, what you create, and this is one of the criticisms we made about the way that multiculturalism was exercised. We simply said, OK it'll all happen.

But what we then allowed was for communities to separate, to be frozen, and though, you know they were peaceful, they were completely separate. And when things got difficult then actually you find that that fissure divides communities. What we're saying is that you need to work actively to make sure that people understand each other, to make sure that people accommodate each other, that they get to know each other, that we don't have towns where young people, for example from a white background, never meet a person of an Asian background at school, or at college, or socially. We cannot have a country in which that is true. That is the way to create a country which is not at ease with itself.

HUW EDWARDS: But what ultimately would lead to the fire in the street that you're talking about. What would trigger that?

TREVOR PHILLIPS: Well we've seen it already. I mean we've seen it in this country, back in the 80s. We're seeing it now in the Netherlands where separate communities have grown up and because there are issues to do with the economics of the Netherlands where things have got a little bit tough, and the finger's being pointed at Muslims and the Muslims are feeling defensive and then we, you know, we get the kind of aggravation we've had.

We saw it in France last year where the French allowed North African communities to grow up completely separately, not feeling French, and at some, eventually that frustration, that exclusion boiled over into the kind of car-burning we saw last year. And by the way, which has continued. I do not want that for Britain, and we have been much better at this than most people, and we shouldn't be complacent about our history. We need to draw on the best of our history to make sure we don't have that again.

HUW EDWARDS: Another aspect of this debate is the expansion of the European Union, the fact that far more people have come over from Eastern Europe than had been firstly predicted.

And now we're looking at Romania and Bulgaria and I notice today in The Observer, we mentioned it earlier, that John Reid is apparently preparing to set pretty tough limits on the level of migration from those countries. Is he right to do that?

TREVOR PHILLIPS: Well I don't exactly what John Reid's going to do.

HUW EDWARDS: But if he...

TREVOR PHILLIPS: ....speculation.


TREVOR PHILLIPS: I think, even if he does set curbs, the truth is they'll only be in for a few years because, I think, by 2010 every European country has to open its borders.

The fact is that what we really need to be concentrating on is, though we might want to give ourselves a breather and all of that, I understand why the government might be considering this - what we really ought to be concentrating on is when our borders are open, and this is an issue for the whole of Europe, every European country - how do we encourage that process of integration so that the dynamism, the skills and so on that people from other parts of Europe are bringing to our economy, which we know we are going to need, that we don't bring with that a social burden, we don't bring with that a conflict of diversity.

And that is what the CRE's integration agenda which stresses people have got to feel equal, they've got to feel that they've got their participating in the society and they have to interact with each other. That's why this is so important. We are going to have diversity in our society come what may. We now need to think about how we manage that diversity so that it is a benefit to us rather than a burden.

HUW EDWARDS: But are you comfortable with the level of migration that we've seen? For example over half a million Poles according to some of the figures in the Home Office, this has clearly been a big talking point nationally. Is that a level that you think Britain can sustain?

TREVOR PHILLIPS: Well the truth is it has sustained it over the last two or three years.

HUW EDWARDS: But if it's replicated?

TREVOR PHILLIPS: Well, you know, it will only be replicated if there are jobs for these people. They will only come here if there are jobs, otherwise they'll go to Italy or somewhere else. And as we've seen over the last two or three years, you know, the legendary Polish plumber, the Czech carpenter, and so on, they have benefited our society. The point I'm making here is while they're benefiting our society economically, we need to make sure that we don't have a social problem that goes with that.

One of the things that we've been concerned about recently has been reports that some of the Eastern Europeans who come, frankly with attitudes towards black people which date back to the 1950s, that we need to make sure that they understand when they come here they're coming into a society where that is unacceptable and where that doesn't work. And that's why I think this issue of integration is so important.

HUW EDWARDS: Trevor Phillips it was good to talk to you.



NB: this transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy

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