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Monday, 16 September, 2002, 17:48 GMT 18:48 UK
PM backs Blunkett in race row
Downing Street has stepped in to defend Home Secretary David Blunkett, after he suggested British Asian families should speak English at home.

Mr Blunkett has faced a storm of criticism over the remarks, made in an essay for a new book on British identity in the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks and last year's riots in some northern cities.

The home secretary stressed he did not think lack of fluency in English had caused the riots in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham.

He also said he supported diversity but highlighted a recent citizenship survey which suggested English was not spoken at home in "as many as 30% of Asian British households".

Shadow Home Secretary Oliver Letwin accused Mr Blunkett of straying into "dangerous territory" by "thinking aloud" in this way.

Mr Letwin told BBC Radio 4's PM that, like Mr Blunkett, he thought people who wanted to become British citizens should be encouraged to learn English.


The prime minister agrees it is an advantage to children to grow up in a home which is bilingual

Downing Street
But he added: "I think government in general should not spend its time telling people how to behave in their own homes unless there is something going on which is illegal."

Downing Street stressed Mr Blunkett's remarks were just one part of a 3,000 word essay.

'Not dictating to people'

The prime minister's official spokesman said: "What the home secretary was saying is not any different from what was said in the White Paper.

"It is not dictating to people what they do.

"It is simply pointing out the advantages to children if English is spoken at home, as well as their mother tongue.

"The prime minister agrees it is an advantage to children to grow up in a home which is bilingual."

Earlier, former minister Keith Vaz branded Mr Blunkett's remarks "silly".

He urged the home secretary to spend a night with an Asian family.

Mr Vaz, one of the UK's most prominent Asians, told BBC Radio 4's World At One: "David Blunkett has been a good home secretary but this is silly, I believe, because it has no basis in fact."

The Labour MP said there was not a single household in his Leicester East constituency where English was not spoken.

But in a multi-cultural society people would also speak other languages.

"Just to make a blanket statement to say that he would like to see it being spoken based on a survey that I think is completely wrong, is not the best way of helping race relations," said Mr Vaz.

'Freedom to choose'

Mr Blunkett first stepped into the controversy earlier this year when he said new immigrants ought to have a "modest grasp of English".

That was a point he underlined in his latest essay, published by the Foreign Policy Centre think-tank.

Disturbances in Bradford last year
Lack of English fluency "did not cause" last year's riots
Respect for cultural differences has limits, said Mr Blunkett, arguing that practices such as forced marriages and female circumcision were incompatible with fundamental human rights.

Within those boundaries, diversity was not only right but desirable and people should be free to choose how to lead their lives, said Mr Blunkett.

"But there must also be greater content to citizenship beyond these foundations," he continued.

"Citizenship should be about shared participation, from the neighbourhood to national elections.

"That is why we must strive to connect people from different backgrounds, tackle segregation, and overcome mutual hostility and ignorance."

Generation gaps

For those long settled in the UK, that meant education, housing, regeneration and tackling racism, said Mr Blunkett.

Another factor was the ability of new migrants to speak English so they could get good jobs and "share in wider social debate".

"Speaking English enables parents to converse with their children in English at home and participate in wider modern culture and it helps overcome the schizophrenia which bedevils generational relationships," said the Sheffield MP.

Labour MP Parmjit Dhanda said such issues should not be "no-go" areas for debate.

It was "innocuous" to suggest that it could be helpful for people to speak English as well as their "mother tongues" in their households, Mr Dhanda told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Kevin Bocquet
"His critics say there are other more pressing problems"
Labour MP Keith Vaz
"This is trying to regulate private relations"
Labour MP for Gloucester Paramjit Dhanda
"David Blunkett is talking sense"
See also:

06 Sep 02 | Politics
10 Dec 01 | UK
06 Sep 02 | Politics
05 Sep 02 | Politics
10 Dec 01 | Politics
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