Revealed: The Diversity That Defines A Nation

Maxine Frith, Independent (UK), October 6, 2006

The most detailed map of ethnic and religious diversity in Britain has been published, showing where different groups live—and how Muslim minorities in particular are at a disadvantage.

From a sizeable Sikh population in a Kent town to a Bradford suburb where 73 per cent of people are Pakistani; from atheist Brighton to Leicester’s large Indian population, the breakdown provides a fascinating snapshot of 21st-century Britain.

The findings are revealed on a day when issues of race and religion are again leading the news agenda. The former foreign secretary Jack Straw said yesterday that he asks Muslim women to remove their veils when they visit his constituency surgery, because he feels “uncomfortable” about talking to someone whose face he cannot see.

In Windsor, extra police had to be drafted in following violent clashes between white and Asian youths. And a row broke out after an armed Muslim protection officer was excused from guarding the Israeli embassy in London, on grounds of “safety”, during the recent war in Lebanon because he had relatives in the country.

The map marks the first time the country has been analysed not simply in terms of the ethnicity of its population, but also by its religions. It reveals diversity in some areas, and the absence of it in others.

New analysis by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) of the 2001 census figures shows that the north-west London borough of Brent is the most ethnically diverse area in England and Wales. Ethnographers devised a “diversity index”—based on the probability that any two people chosen at random from a particular area would be from different ethnic groups, even if neither of them were white.

In Brent, the chance of doing so was 85 per cent. Just 29 per cent of residents are white British, with Indians, black Caribbeans and black Africans all heavily represented. That compares to Easington in Co Durham, where there is a 2 per cent chance, making it the least diverse place in the country. On average, two people bumping into each other in the street stand a 23 per cent chance of having different ethnic backgrounds. In some areas, more than 70 per cent of residents are from an ethnic minority.

For the first time in the history of the census, the 2001 survey asked people to state their religion as part of an effort to get a more detailed demographic picture of the world we live in.

Using the same diversity index calculations, the ONS found that the London borough of Harrow was the most religiously diverse, with a more than 60 per cent chance that someone standing next to you will not share the same faith. Mapping also showed that people from the same religions and ethnic groups moved to the same areas. Thus Indian Hindus tended to live in different regions from Indian Sikhs. In some areas, such as Leicester, Birmingham, Bradford and Manchester, three-quarters of the population are non-white and non-Christian, despite the fact that this ethno-religious group accounts for 70 per cent of England and Wales as a whole.

Detailed analysis of ethnic minorities also shows how many are now second, third or fourth generation immigrants. More than half (57 per cent) of black Caribbeans were born in the UK, alongside 55 per cent of Pakistanis, 46 per cent of Bangladeshis and 45 per cent of Indians. The report also shows how, outside major cities, many areas remain predominantly white British.

Seven per cent of local authority areas are classed as being “highly ethnically diverse”—based on the idea that there is a more than 50 per cent chance that two random people will be from different backgrounds. Fewer—3 per cent—are classed as being highly religiously diverse, on the same calculation.

More damning are differences in unemployment, overcrowding and other deprivation indicators. More than 40 per cent of Bangladeshi households are overcrowded, compared with 6 per cent of white British. One in three Muslim homes have dependent children but no working adults.

Black African Muslim men suffer most from the deprivation gap, with rates of unemployment three times higher than white British men. The new data shows that black African Muslims are also twice as likely as Indian Muslims to be unemployed. In turn, Indian Muslims are far more likely to be jobless than Sikhs or Hindus, suggesting that it is religion, rather than race, that is key.

Dr Jamil Sherif, secretary of the research committee of the Muslim Council of Britain, said: “The issue of unemployment is extremely serious in parts of the Muslim community. There is an urgent need for bold policy initiatives in appropriate skills training and apprentice schemes.

“On a separate note, the ONS report highlights the ethnic and religious diversity in Brent and Harrow. Both local authority districts have good community relations and cohesion—which shows multiculturalism works.”

England and Wales ethnicity

  • White Britons make up 88.2 per cent of the population.
  • 71.8 per cent describe themselves as Christian.
  • 14 per cent of white Britons say they have no religion.
  • Muslims make up three per cent of the population. Islam is the second biggest religion after Christianity.
  • The Indian population is the largest non-white ethnic group, accounting for 1.8 per cent.
  • Pakistani Muslims are the biggest non-white ethno-religious group.
  • Black Caribbeans account for one per cent of the population.
  • More than 60,000 white Britons are Muslims.
  • One in three Black Africans was born in Britain.


Jack Straw won top level support today for his opposition to Muslim women wearing the veil.

The Leader of the Commons received backing from senior figures including a Muslim peer and the Bishop of London.

And Tony Blair backed his right to speak his mind after Mr Straw stoked up the row by saying the veil was a barrier to good race relations.

Mr Straw’s statement that Muslim women should not have to cover their faces brought fierce criticism from some Muslim groups. But Muslim peer Baroness Uddin said there was a need for a “measured debate” and that the nation should “also consider the status of Muslim women in this country”.

The Baroness added: “I think it’s about human rights on both sides – Jack’s right to say and the women’s right to wear what they please.”

The Rt Rev Richard Chartres expressed his sympathy for Mr Straw’s views but accepted it was “an explosive” issue not easily resolved. He also backed Mr Straw’s assertion that wearing the veil was not required by the Koran.

Dr Chartres added: “I can understand why he has said it. My understanding is that the veil came from the habit of upper class Christian women in the Byzantine empire that has become a symbolic issue.”

Jemima Khan, a convert to Islam and campaigner for Muslim women, said: “My belief also happens to be that covering the face is completely unnecessary in Islam. I have never read anywhere in the Koran that a woman is obliged to cover her face.

“That said, while the sight of a woman in a veil may be shocking to the average Westerner, there are many Muslim women who will argue that a skeletal 14-year-old on a catwalk is equally disturbing.”

Mr Straw sparked the row yesterday when he said that he asks visitors to his constituency surgery to remove their veils because he feels uncomfortable talking to someone whose face he cannot see. His remarks triggered fury from some Islamic groups but today, far from backing down, Mr Straw went further by saying he would prefer it if Muslim women never covered up.

The former foreign secretary said he believed wearing veils, a traditional symbol of modesty, makes race relations more difficult. The debate surrounding Muslims and integration was further exacerbated in the row over a Muslim police officer who was excused guard duty at the Israeli embassy.

Mr Straw, whose Blackburn constituency has a high Asian population, said the increasing trend towards covering the face was “bound to make better, positive relations between the two communities more difficult”.

Asked if he would rather the veils be discarded completely, he said today: “Yes. It needs to be made clear I am not talking about being prescriptive but, with all the caveats, yes, I would rather.”

He told Radio 4’s Today programme this morning: “You cannot force people where they live, that’s a matter of choice and economics, but you can be concerned about the implications of separateness and I am.”

Mr Straw wrote of his fears in a regular column for the Lancashire Telegraph. A meeting with a veiled woman had made him consider the “apparent incongruityî between her entirely English accent and UK education and the wearing of the veil.

“Above all, it was because I felt uncomfortable about talking to someone ‘face to face’ who I could not see,” he wrote. “It was not the first time I had conducted an interview with someone in a full veil, but this particular encounter, though very polite and respectful on both sides, got me thinking.”

Conservative policy director Oliver Letwin said it would be a “dangerous doctrine” to start telling people how to dress, while Liberal Democrat chairman Simon Hughes dubbed the remarks “insensitive and surprising”.

The Labour MP for Dewsbury, Shahid Malik, said traditional dress was a big issue in his constituency. “We shouldn’t shoot somebody for being honest,” he told Newsnight. “What we’ve got to understand is that this is a two-way street: we need to increase understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims.”

Dr Daud Abdullah, of the Muslim Council of Britain, also said he understood Mr Straw’s views. “This (the veil) does cause some discomfort to non-Muslims. One can understand this,” he said, adding that Muslim opinion was divided.

But Mr Straw came under fire from the Lancashire Council of Mosques which said he had “misunderstood” the issue and it was “deeply concerned” by his “very insensitive and unwise” statement. A spokesman said: “We fully support the right of Muslim women to choose to follow this precept of their faith in adopting the full veil, which causes no harm to anyone. It is their human right to do so. Many of these women find Mr Straw’s comments offensive.”

Zareen Roohi Ahmed, chief executive of the British Muslim Forum, warned that Mr Straw’s comments risked opening the door to discrimination by employers. “My worry is that if someone in Jack Straw’s position can get away with asking Muslim women to remove their veils, what is to stop employers, bus drivers or shopkeepers from applying the same kind of pressure?”

On the streets of Blackburn his comments were poorly received. Baksedha Khan, 34, accused him of using the issue to advance his bid for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party.

She asked: “Why is he making a big issue of this now? Does he have an ulterior motive? I think this is all about his political future and he is looking for publicity.”

Labour Party colleagues, including Hazel Blears, gave their backing to Mr Straw, saying his request to constituents was “perfectly proper”.

Downing Street made clear today that Mr Blair backs Mr Straw’s right to speak out. Mr Blair’s spokeswoman said: “The Prime Minister believes that it’s right that people should be able to have a discussion and express their personal views on issues such as this.” She refused to reveal Mr Blair’s views on the subject.

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