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Reproduced below are just a few of the topics discussed in the House of interest to Muslims:
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Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): Although my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) cheered us all up with his knockabout attack on the various follies and errors in Government policy, the debate has necessarily been rather sombre, given the background. It has also been thoughtful and constructive, and I want to respond to some of the main points.
I am sorry that the Minister is not in his place—doubtless, he will scurry in shortly—because I wanted to congratulate him on his elevation to the Privy Council. In the light of that good news, I expected many Government Back Benchers to flock in to support him. However, at the start of the debate, only two were present, neither of whom—how can I put it politely and diplomatically?—is famous for supporting every dot and comma of Government policy. Nevertheless, the Minister did his usual excellent job, in his polite, thoughtful and constructive way—and we are grateful for his comments about the Icelandic banks—of defending the indefensible.
The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) presented the argument, as I expected, for local income tax. To put it mildly, we do not agree with her. We do not believe that, at this point in the economic cycle, with a downturn looming, we should impose more taxes on hard-working families. However, I am determined to agree with her about something, and I agreed with her intervention about IN35, one of the indicators that measures PVE—preventing violent extremism. She was right to point out that the Government should ensure that money does not go to extremists, but that local councils should have the maximum flexibility to use PVE money as they want.
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The hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell), who has not returned, made a doughty defence of his local interest. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) asked me for a commitment on neighbourhood renewal money. I am sorry to disappoint him, but I am not in a position today to write on the Floor of the House our general election manifesto on every pot of money that the Government produce. I know that he will be disappointed, but I am afraid that he must live with that.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) made, as always, a polished and assured speech, and demolished the various follies of unitaries. He made a telling point about parish councils, which do a job that the Government seem to want to reinvent.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) reverted, as one might expect, to the Buncefield fire, a subject that he has raised many times. It proved again, were proof needed, that he is capable of phenomenal hard work on behalf of his constituents.
My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) brought all his council experience to bear—I am sorry to hear that he is finally to leave his local government post—on various aspects of Government policy with which he disagrees.
I want to ask a few questions about community cohesion, especially about the way in which the Department perceives the role of local government in helping prevent violent extremism—an aspect of local authorities’ work that we have not discussed so far. I will make three brief points about that.
First, it is wrong to assume that violent extremism is the monopoly of any particular ethnic or religious group. It is worth noting that, in the past year, a neo Nazi from Yorkshire was sentenced for serious offences under terrorism legislation for designing violence to be committed specifically against Muslims.
Secondly, we must recognise, however, that the main threat to public safety—to Muslims and non-Muslims alike—comes from those who would exercise violence in the name of Islam. I would like quickly to make the point that it is not often appreciated that Muslims face a particular difficulty, because the aim of al-Qaeda is to drive out mainstream Muslim leadership and replace it.
Finally, many people talk about the causes of violent extremism and give different reasons for it—the failures of multiculturalism, foreign policy, discrimination, and so on. The point is that local government has to pick up those issues and deal with them. They are not just a matter for national Government. I appreciate that the Minister will not have time to answer all my points, so I would be grateful if he indicated that he will write to me about any that are outstanding.
Government policy on preventing violent extremism has been through three main phases since 2007 and the horror of 7/7. The first was to work through the preventing extremism together programme, with which I know the Minister was involved, with partnership organisations at a national level. The second phase, begun after Tony Blair rushed out his famous—or notorious—12-point plan, saw the Department for Communities and Local Government in the driving seat and the start of the preventing violent extremism programme or PVE, the
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flagship DCLG scheme. The third and current phase sees the Home Office back in control, seeking a more targeted approach. We must all hope that the latest strategy works, and of course we entirely support its aim of preventing extremism and supporting moderation. However, it raises questions about the future of PVE and the role of local authorities.
As I have told the House before, we must recognise that targeting taxpayers’ money at one faith community is problematic. None the less, given the seriousness of the threat of violent extremism, we have supported PVE and continue to do so. Indeed, I pay tribute to some of the good work that I have seen up and down the country. However, we must recognise that considerable sums are being invested in PVE—some £45 million this year and the next two years, on top of the £7 million or so that was spent on it last year. It is vital to ensure that the money is effectively spent.
The Department should therefore surely support an independent study of the scheme’s effectiveness in achieving its indispensable aim of preventing violent extremism. If Ministers will not commission such a study, questions are increasingly bound to be asked about whether the scheme, which works through local authorities, is achieving its aims. We have to be sure that it is doing so. Will the Department commission an independent assessment of the effectiveness of PVE?
In July, the Secretary of State announced that she planned to establish a new board of academic and theological advisers. I previously floated the idea of a privately financed institute of British Islam to achieve the same aim and we have some reservations about the danger of the state being seen to impose a preferred model on British Muslims. Will the Minister say whether members of the board have been appointed yet and, if so, who they are, whether they have met, whether they will publish any reports and what role local authorities will play in the process, if any?
We are aware that the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board published a draft constitution last year and obtained responses, and has since published a second draft constitution in the light of those responses. We would be grateful if the Minister said when MINAB will publish a fully fledged constitution and what plans there are, if any, for links between MINAB and local authorities.
In closing, I make no apology for returning to the implications for community cohesion and local government of sharia courts in the UK, a matter on which the new Minister quite properly opined last weekend and which we discussed yesterday. As both I and the Minister intimated yesterday, my hon. and learned Friend the shadow Home Secretary has received a letter from the Home Secretary confirming that Muslim arbitration tribunals were established in Britain last year. We have no objection in principle to the use of arbitration vehicles, including such tribunals, to resolve private family and contractual disputes. However, those tribunals will clearly be run by sharia judges and are therefore likely be marketed to Muslims as state-licensed sharia courts. There are, in particular, important questions about whether Muslim women will always come before such tribunals voluntarily.
I want to put it on record that we are deeply concerned about the paucity of information that we have received from the Home Office and about the implications,
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therefore, for community cohesion. This is a subject of great public interest, as the Archbishop of Canterbury, for one, will confirm.
Ministers do not appear to have announced the establishment of these tribunals last year. They have not said how many there are, or who was consulted. They have not told us who the mediators or judges are, how many cases have been heard or what measures are in place to protect women. The House and the public are being told very little. I was grateful to the Minister for confirming yesterday that he will use his good offices to clear up these matters, by ensuring that we get answers in writing, but our message to Ministers this afternoon is that they should not take refuge in letters that conceal more than they reveal.
I could close this debate in the manner in which my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst quite properly opened it, by attacking all the flaws and follies of Government policy in relation to centralisation, the target culture, the planning quangocracy, the gimmicks—such as doughnuts for voting—to which my hon. Friends have referred, and people pressing buttons when councillors are not even in the chamber. Or I could refer to the absurdities of the Standards Board for England, about which so many councillors complain.
However, given the questions that I have just raised, to which I am seeking answers from the Minister, I would like to end on a note on which I think the whole House can agree. The challenges of violent extremism are clearly serious. If we are to succeed in tackling it, much of that success will depend on the effectiveness of an unwritten social contract between British Muslims and non-Muslims. Non-Muslims, such as me, all the non-Muslim Members of Parliament and others, have to make Britain a warm place for mainstream Islam and acknowledge the contribution that Islam has made to the west in the past, is making now and will surely make in the future.
The other side of that social contract is that Muslims themselves must continue—as the majority do—to seek to drive out support for terrorism and extremism. The success of that social contract will depend on what is effected not only at national Government level but at local government level, where local councils have responsibility. That is the forum in which many of these great issues will be decided. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Sadiq Khan)
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Mr. Khan: The hon. Gentleman’s hon. Friend the. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) spoke, characteristically, in a partial, unbalanced but witty fashion. I enjoyed his contribution, as I always do. I think that he and I agree on the ends—such as community cohesion—and also on some of the challenges that we face, although I suspect that we disagree to an extent on the means. He was wise to point out that issues of terrorism and extremism are not the purview of a single faith, religion or race, and I am pleased that he gave other similar examples. I shall write to him to answer some his questions, but if he considers a meeting with me to be desirable, I shall be happy to meet him—with or without officials—to discuss the issues that he raised. We need national unity during the times of crisis that he described, as well as at times of economic crisis.
This has been a very important debate, and I congratulate all who were able to take part in it.