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Why we walked out of the Council meeting

When I put forward our motion on “Improving Integration and Cohesion in Luton” to the full Council meeting on Tuesday I did not expect the extraordinary reaction from Labour members that followed. The motion was our response to a government report drawn up by former Luton Chief Executive Darra Singh which recommended a number of actions which local councils should take to promote integration and social cohesion.

We thought that, while different parties might have issues with the detail, we would get all party support for the motion. We did not expect that the debate that followed would result in the wildest of accusations being made by Labour councillors.

We were disgusted that on a motion we put down where we expressed what we hoped was the joint commitment of the town to improve relations across our communities, Labour Councillors Robin Harris and Mahmood Hussain accused us of not standing up to the BNP, and of being the kind of people who would remain silent when concentration camps were being set up.

The Liberal Democrats have always opposed all forms of discrimination and inequality, and we remain utterly committed to continuing to do so. Nobody fought harder against the BNP than our councillors in Round Green, supported by other Liberal Democrat colleagues across Luton.

We have never heard such a debased and unprincipled debate ever in the Town Hall and hope never to do so again. We had hoped to remain to vote for the motion despite the tenor of the debate, but in the end it proved too much to stomach and we did not feel we wanted to be associated with that level of debate. Many of us felt physically sick listening to such odious remarks, and if this is a sign of the Town’s so-called leadership, Luton is going to be in a very sorry state in a very short time.

There is no place anywhere for the disgusting, libellous and defamatory remarks we were subjected to in that debate. That they should be supported by the Council Leader, who sat silently and uncritically throughout the tirades while pressing on with a petty anti-Liberal Democrat amendment to what was intended to be a unifying motion, is an ill sign of things to come.

Liberal Democrats were proposing a positive formal offer to work with Labour, to look seriously and non-politically at community relations and integration in this town, and to see what lessons we can learn from a high level report from a former Luton Chief Executive Darra Singh who worked under Lord McKenzie. Their response was beyond and beneath any behaviour I have experienced before.

We remain committed to considering the issues we have now got onto the Council agenda, and will try to play our part if there is no repeat of this kind of disgraceful performance. A genuinely meant apology from the Leader of the Council for the behaviour of several members of her group, and a complete retraction and apology from Councillor Robin Harris for all of his outrageous statements, would be a good start in helping repair the damage they have done, but the signs do not look good.

We did everything possible to give the issue of community relations the strong base it needs to prosper in terms of the Council taking a lead. We were not just rebuffed, but kicked in the face. Labour slithered into the gutter in that debate, and show no signs of seeing a way back up out of it.

Of all the people we thought would not do so, it was Councillor Simmons, but perhaps she is being held ransom by others in her group and doesn’t have the authority to overrule them. Either way, with Luton’s so-called leaders acting in this way, we now fear for our town.

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