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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 August 2006, 10:19 GMT 11:19 UK
In full: Ruth Kelly speech
The full text of Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly's speech launching the new commission to look at how to counter tensions between people of different ethnic groups and religions.

Welcome - and thanks to all of you who have come here today to launch the Commission on Integration and Cohesion.

I want to start by saying that I believe that Britain's diversity is a huge asset to our country - economically, culturally and socially.

Immigration has helped transform our economy, supporting growth and boosting productivity. London's strength as a financial centre - as I am keenly aware from my time at the Treasury - was driven by the acknowledgement across the developed world that Britain was open to new people, to new ideas and to new products.

Immigration has helped enrich our cultural life, with the capital's diversity now commonly acknowledged to be one of its key attractions. A weekend spent at the Notting Hill Carnival or exploring Brick Lane are attracting tourists and residents alike.

And migrant workers have been vital to supporting our public services, providing critical staff to our hospitals and schools, as well as other essential services. As the Prime Minister has said: "far from always or even mainly being a drain on our health and education systems, they are often the very people delivering them".

And I believe that we should celebrate and clearly articulate the benefits that migration and diversity have brought - but while celebrating that diversity we should also recognise that the landscape is changing, changing rapidly. And we should not shy away from asking - and trying to respond to - some of the more difficult questions that arise.

I believe it is time now to engage in a new and honest debate about integration and cohesion in the UK. If we are to have an effective, progressive response to these issues, then we must be honest about the challenges we face and be prepared to meet these head on with renewed energy and impetus.

Thirty years on from the Race Relations Act and the Commission for Racial Equality, the context of today's society arguably poses some of the most complex questions we have ever faced as a nation.

Patterns of immigration to Britain are becoming more complex. Our new residents are not the Windrush generation. They are more diverse, coming from countries ranging from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, from South Africa to Somalia.

And one of the outcomes of that complexity - and increased global interconnectedness - is that global tensions are being reflected on the streets of local communities. New migrants protect the fierce loyalties developed in war-torn parts of Europe. Muslims feel the reverberations from the Middle East. Wider global trends have an impact. Some new migrants will put down roots. Some will move on, and find other work or return to their families.

As time passes, the challenges of integration become more apparent to those who have settled here. Second and third generation immigrants can face a struggle. Not to adapt to life in the UK - but to reconcile their own values and beliefs with those of their parents and grandparents. Young people may be seen as Pakistani on the streets of Burnley, but many feel out of place and "British" when they visit Pakistan.

And for some communities in particular, we need to acknowledge that life in Britain has started to feel markedly different since the attacks on 9/11 in New York and on 7/7 in London - even more so since the events of two weeks ago.

And as this complex picture evolves, there are white Britons who do not feel comfortable with change. They see the shops and restaurants in their town centres changing. They see their neighbourhoods becoming more diverse. Detached from the benefits of those changes, they begin to believe the stories about ethnic minorities getting special treatment, and to develop a resentment, a sense of grievance.

The issues become a catalyst for a debate about who we are and what we are as a country. About what it means to live in a town where the faces you see on the way to the supermarket have changed and may be constantly changing.

I believe this is why we have moved from a period of uniform consensus on the value of multiculturalism, to one where we can encourage that debate by questioning whether it is encouraging separateness.

Trevor Phillips and others have put forward these points of view. These are difficult questions and it is important that we don't shy away from them.

In our attempt to avoid imposing a single British identity and culture, have we ended up with some communities living in isolation of each other, with no common bonds between them?

I think we face the clear possibility that we are experiencing diversity no longer as a country, but as a set of local communities. Each experiencing changes in a different way, with some being affected more than others.

It is on this ground that this Commission can add most value. It is not, and must not be, a talking shop. It is a practical exercise which will look at what actually works for communities on the ground. It will act as a catalyst for change, by ensuring that, not only do we know what works, but that we are able to share this information and "scale up" those things that really make a difference.

The Commission has a new and more complex set of challenges to address. It will need to think about both people, and place. About established communities, and those that have yet to develop a resilience to change.

It is our responsibility to make sure that the Commission can engage with the latest and most innovative policy interventions. And that it can build on the best examples of local areas where community cohesion is working.

It will also look at how we can encourage local authorities and community organization to play a greater role in ensuring new migrants better integrate into our communities and fill labour market shortages. For example, increasing the availability of English teaching, mapping where local jobs exist, ensuring that migrants are able to develop a sense of belonging, with shared values and local understanding, as we underline their responsibility to integrate and contribute to the local community.

There are already communities rising up to tackle these issues and equipping themselves for the changes they face.

There are school twinning programmes, and sporting events across the country that focus on children mixing at an early age. Local communities are developing Charters of Values, or local Citizens' Days, that aim to develop a sense of belonging in multicultural towns and cities. And there are community-led projects springing up in communities facing cohesion challenges that focus on mediation and conflict resolution - learning from the best international practice.

And there are more specialised projects such as the work in Bradford aimed at developing a citizenship curriculum for Madrassas. Or examples of private sector organisations getting involved in cohesion by running mentoring schemes for people of all ethnic and faith backgrounds.

What we need to do is to consolidate these pockets of good practice and spread the lessons learnt much further. Then we can begin to develop a more consistent national picture.

Finally, there are questions about the debate itself. It will have considerably more value if we can be open and honest about the challenges we face. We must not be censored by political correctness, and we must not tiptoe around important issues.

For example, it is clear that we need a controlled, well managed system of immigration that has clear rules and integrity to counter exploitation from the far right. I agree with the Home Secretary: it is not racist to discuss immigration and asylum. There are challenging, legitimate issues we need to talk about and debate. That debate, however, must be based on fact, not myth. How do we establish the necessary trust and maturity to allow this?

It is also clear that our ideas and policies should not be based on special treatment for minority ethnic or faith communities. That would only exacerbate division rather than help build cohesion. And as a society we have to have the confidence to say no to certain suggestions from particular ethnic groups.

But at the same time, to make sure everyone can be treated equally, there are some programmes that will need to treat groups differently. We must, again, be unafraid to say this plainly when it is plainly the pragmatic truth. Which is why the cross-Government race and cohesion strategy 'Improving Opportunity, Strengthening Society' is so critical.

And I also want to see a clear understanding that although fundamental rights must be equal for everyone, with rights come responsibilities. Even within a framework of mutual tolerance, I believe that there are non-negotiable rules, understood by all groups, both new and established. We must be clear and unafraid to say that we expect these will be shared and followed by all who live here.

Like it or not, these are all questions that will shape our society and our public debates more and more in the coming years.

And we start with some positive signs. Not only the readiness of Commissioners to engage with this body - for which I am grateful. And not only the ideas that are already flowing in from local communities who want their projects to be considered as part of its work.

But evidence at a national level, via the regular Government Citizenship Survey, which consistently shows that people who live in the most ethnically diverse areas are the ones that have the most positive perceptions of ethnic minorities. It seems that those who are the most frightened about change are those that have been least exposed to it.

Integration and cohesion are not states but processes. They need to be worked at, built up and nurtured. We need to ensure that we are encouraging interaction between communities, and enabling people off all backgrounds to participate in wider society and institutions.

So, integration and cohesion are not issues just for people from ethnic minorities. Those who seek to cause conflict and tension in our communities must be marginalised by the responsible majority. That means everyone is involved. We need to recognise that there remains more that binds us together than pulls us apart.

I'm now going to hand over to Darra, who has important local experience to bring to the Commission. I look forward to reading his recommendations.

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