Political correctness and race laws are stifling vital debate over the “White fright” which threatens segregation in British communities, a respected Government advisor has warned.
Professor Ted Cantle claimed laws designed to stop extremists stirring up racial hatred were becoming “part of the problem” as normal people increasingly feel unable to voice their concerns or unease over changes in society.
He called for “greater tolerance” for people expressing their fears and warned that unless such concerns are debated openly they will simply be “driven underground”.
Professor Cantle, who was commissioned to write the Government’s official report into the 2001 race riots, spoke out as a BBC Panorama investigation highlighted stark evidence of segregation between white and Asian Muslim communities in Blackburn, Lancashire.
Producers of the report White Fright found many white residents who harboured grave misgivings over their neighbourhoods being “taken over” by Muslims, but refused to speak openly on camera for fear of being branded racist.
Professor Cantle claimed political correctness and race relations legislation were partly to blame, saying: “I think it can become part of the problem if it has the effect of limiting the debate.
“Most of the legislation we’ve got stems really from a position of 40 years ago where we were very concerned about the rise of the extreme right—some of the naked and overt racism, which was very, very, strong.
“We’re now in a different position. I think we actually need to loosen some of those ties so that we can actually have a more mature debate.
“It will be painful, but the longer-term process will be, I think, a much better level of understanding.”
He added: “I think if we discuss some of the fears then we go a long way to assuaging them. If we keep them locked up then people feel decisions are being taken for the sake of political correctness.”
Britain’s laws against racial discrimination were “sound”, he said, but those covering inciting racial or religious hatred were preventing open discussion.
It is an offence to use “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour” to stir up hatred against anyone on grounds of colour, race, nationality or ethnic origin.
New legislation will shortly add religion to the list.
Professor Cantle said: “I think there is a perception at least that there is too much political correctness and that people feel unable to express their views, they feel that they’re going to be condemned as a racist.”
In the case of Blackburn, he said, there were signs that racial segregation was “probably getting worse” both in terms of residential ghettoes and in education and employment.
Prof Cantle, a former chief executive of Nottingham City Council who now sits on several Government quangos, was widely praised for his balanced report into the 2001 race riots in which he warned that white and Asian communities were living “parallel lives” with little or no contact.
Panorama producer Stephen Scott, “Many people we spoke to wouldn’t appear on screen.
“We found a great nervousness—people didn’t feel able to speak openly about their unease about the way things were changing and about the gulf between the two communities. We were very struck by that.
“They struggled to find a way to say they didn’t want to be taken over. They had no way of expressing it. They were afraid of saying the wrong thing and coming across as racist.”
The report highlights the phenomenon of “white flight” from parts of Blackburn as Asian Muslims move in to neighbourhoods—with pubs closing, shops changing in character and white children gradually becoming the minority in local schools.
Estate agents told how white people stopped buying property in such areas, fuelling segregation, but white residents were reluctant to speak openly about their reasons for leaving.
A Home Office spokesman said: “We believe that our laws strike the right balance between freedom of expression and protection of individuals from hatred and violence.”
He said the new Racial and Religious Hatred Bill clearly stated that debate and criticism were allowed unless the speaker deliberately intended or was reckless over stirring up hatred.