Select Committee on Liaison Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 360-379)


4 JULY 2006

  Q360  Mr Denham: We may come back to the public inquiry but that is helpful. Last year, Prime Minister, you proposed the establishment of a commission on integration. It has never met. It is just not a priority for you, is it?

  Mr Blair: It certainly is a priority to make sure people integrate, and part of the reason for the whole of the working groups and so on was to explore ways that people can integrate. I thought one of the most encouraging things about the poll that was done in the newspapers this morning was the view of most Muslims that they want to integrate. This is part of a far bigger picture but we do have to be very specific about this. There is an issue to do with integration which again, if we want to deal with this, we have to deal with.

  Q361  Mr Denham: My point is, Prime Minister, that I welcomed it last year when you proposed the establishment of a commission on integration and cohesion. I am just asking why, more than six months after you proposed it, it has never met. I do not even think it has a membership as yet.

  Mr Blair: Because what we decided to do was the process of engagement with the Muslim community and, rather than establish, as it were, a specific commission that was going to look at the issues to do with integration before you got the feedback from the working groups, look first of all at what they are saying. The other thing I would just point out to you is that not all the groups agree with each other. That is the other problem. It is not clear to me that there is one unified view within the community as to how to proceed.

  Q362  Mr Denham: I am sure there is not, Prime Minister. I am just trying to establish why you proposed something in this area more than six months ago which has never met.

  Mr Blair: The reason I am giving is that we think it is best to get the feedback from the groups first and then we can see how we take it forward.

  Mr Denham: Amongst the conclusions of the working groups was that although their remit was to tackle extremism, radicalism, most of the working groups saw that solutions lie in the medium to longer term issues of tackling inequality, discrimination, deprivation and inconsistent Government policy, and to pursue some of those I am going turn to Dr Phyllis Starkey.

  Q363  Dr Starkey: Prime Minister, John Denham has pointed to one of the key recommendations of the strategy recommended by the working groups, which was eliminating discrimination against Muslims, promoting equality of treatment, opportunity and outcomes between British Muslims and other members of society. Do you accept that achieving equality of opportunity and outcome is a key part of the strategy to win hearts and minds?

  Mr Blair: Yes, I do.

  Q364  Dr Starkey: In that case can I focus on one particular aspect, which is employment? A report, which was funded by the Department for Communities and Local Government and published in April this year, showed that unemployment rates are higher for Muslims than any other part of the population, and where they are in work Muslims are concentrated in low pay sectors like catering, transport and hotels, and a higher proportion are in part-time work than the population at large, so what action are you asking the Government to take to target action to close the employment gap between Muslims and the rest of the community?

  Mr Blair: First of all, I think the issue is very stark and, indeed, if you look, for example, at levels of women's employment in the Muslim community they are far below, maybe even half or under half, the levels in the community as a whole. We are, through the funding of groups, through programmes like the New Deal, Sure Start and so on, which we have got in the Muslim communities, trying to make sure that those gaps are bridged. The raising of standards in local schools is very important to doing that, but I want to come back—and again I may offend people by saying this—to the fact that part of the answer to this also lies within the community itself. We can put in programmes but you need community leaders who are also going to be saying, for example, "We need to make sure that women get the opportunities they require to go out and work and get the training and help that they need to do so".

  Q365  Dr Starkey: I would not necessarily dissent from the action we are taking about encouraging Muslim women to get into work but you have avoided the issue of male unemployment in the Muslim community. There is 13% male unemployment among Muslims compared with 3 to 8% for other groups. That is a different issue. I am asking you again: what are we doing to target measures at encouraging and helping Muslim men to get into work at the same rate as other men in Britain?

  Mr Blair: The very programmes that we have we put in place, like the New Deal, are in the areas where the highest levels of unemployment are and that includes the Muslim community. Again, if there are further things that people would like us to do we are very happy to look at doing them.

  Q366  Dr Starkey: I have brought this point up in all our previous meetings, Prime Minister. I accept the New Deal is doing valuable work. I am asking what we are doing to target specifically Muslims because there are innumerable examples which demonstrate that unless things are targeted at that group the gap between them and the rest of the community will remain. If I can point you to a rather different situation from disadvantaged communities with high levels of unemployment, Slough, which is like the powerhouse of the UK in the south east, last week the Chief Executive of Slough Borough Council drew attention to the impact that an influx of migrant workers from an EU accession country was having on employment rates in Slough and said that she was particularly concerned by Pakistani employment rates which have fallen over the last few months. In other words, that particular part of the community in Slough where the economy is amazingly strong, which was already at a disadvantage, in response to a new challenge has suffered a greater disadvantage than the rest of the population. Unless action is targeted at those specific groups, just having the New Deal, which is targeted at all people who are out of work, is not reaching that group.

  Mr Blair: It is important, obviously, that we examine that very carefully indeed. The only thing I would say to you though is that the whole point about these programmes is that they go into the areas of most difficulty or, for example, of people who have difficulty with English as a language. There are programmes that are specifically targeted at those people but you can get other pockets of deprivation and unemployment that are not limited to, for example, the Muslim community or the Pakistani community or the Bangladeshi community in certain instances. I agree it is important that we target programmes. I can get you the list of all the fundings we give to particular groups that are voluntary organisations in the Muslim community that help tackle some of this but my point is that it also requires a very clear response from the community itself.[2]

  Q367 Mr Sheerman: Prime Minister, can I interject on this? Is this a question of joined-up Government? Is it not the fact that migration policy still encourages unskilled young men and women, particularly young men, to come from the Indian sub-continent, large numbers of them? They turn up here with no English, no skills, a history perhaps in agriculture, and they soon become unemployed and that is a very real problem of matching migration policy with what we can do with education, Sure Start and all the other programmes.

  Mr Blair: But also it is the importance of the points-based system that we are introducing into migration now that will make sure that if people have not got an employment opportunity they do not come here.

  Q368  Dr Starkey: With respect, Prime Minister, can I get you back to this? The CRE has shown that even when you take into account educational qualifications, fluency in English, et cetera, Pakistani and Bangladeshi citizens fare worse in employment, earnings and career projection, so the point made by my colleague, with respect, is a diversion. There is discrimination against those communities. Even when they have the qualifications they fare less well, although of course it is important to help people without qualifications to get them. We are constantly sliding away from it and saying it is the community's fault. The evidence demonstrates the opposite.

  Mr Blair: I am not saying it is the community's fault; let me make that clear, but I think it is quite a big leap from describing the problem to saying it is as a result of discrimination, which is what you are saying. I am not sure I agree with that. The fact is there are programmes that by their very nature will be targeted on the areas of most disadvantage and if that is in respect of the Muslim population that is where those programmes will go. If you were to take—and I am sorry, I do not raise it to divert from the issue you are asking me about—the issue of the low levels of employment amongst women in the Muslim community, that is not simply to do with discrimination in my view.

  Q369  Dr Starkey: No, but if you talk about male unemployment, that is not a factor and the CRE report clearly shows, as I say, that when you take into account, when you match all the reasons which might make it more difficult for an individual to be employed, you finish up still with evidence that if you are Pakistani or Bangladeshi you are likely to be worse off in employment, earnings and career projection than somebody with comparable qualifications who is not Pakistani or Bangladeshi.

  Mr Blair: I totally agree with that and that is the reason the programmes that we have, which are not, I agree, Pakistani-specific in that case but do, of course, impact enormously on those communities, are precisely to help that. All I am saying is that the only way of dealing with them ultimately is also in partnership with the local community.

  Q370  Dr Starkey: Can I take you up on that? The Muslim Council of Britain had a report, Voices from the Minarets, which pointed out that mosques are a valuable community resource and that some sections of the Muslim community do find it difficult to access mainstream services that were "culturally incompetent or insensitive", so are you encouraging mainstream services, where appropriate, to work more closely with mosques so as to make the services more culturally appropriate?

  Mr Blair: We really do try to make sure that local schools are very sensitive to the needs of their local communities and I think most schools are. Interestingly, when I had the process of engagement with Muslim women in Downing Street they had two issues about this. One was that they thought it was important, obviously, that the local schools were sensitive to the needs of Muslim children. They actually had a different and almost opposite worry as well, which was that it was important that the mosques too were sensitive to the fact that they had to have the proper education for their kids and that their kids were going to benefit from being in mainstream education.

  Q371  Dr Starkey: I am not talking about children; I am talking about adults who need to upskill and who find it difficult with the services currently provided. Are you going to suggest that Government departments providing adult training, which many of these communities find it difficult to access, work more closely with mosques?

  Mr Blair: I totally understand what you are saying and I do not really disagree with the need to make sure that we target things properly. Perhaps the best thing for me to do is to get someone to do for me the programmes that are there specifically for the Muslim community and on issues to do with skills and pathways into employment and so on.[3] I do not mean to suggest that just because you have got a general programme it necessarily fits the specific, but my point is that these programmes are designed to target the most disadvantaged groups. The only thing I am saying, and I would say this in respect of male unemployment as well, is that I think it is an issue to do with the partnership with the community which is going to be very important. There is a whole series of questions that we have to engage with to get this right, including the relationship between the mosques and the schools, but you need to get that balance properly done; otherwise there is a danger too in that.

  Q372 Mr Denham: Prime Minister, taking up the theme of partnerships in the community but in the rather different area of intelligence and policing, one of the things that is clearly necessary is for information to be provided to the police and the security services. It seems difficult to me to see how you can completely avoid events like Forest Gate, where the police were impelled to go in on what perhaps turns out to be dodgy information, but how can we sustain community confidence in providing information to the police if people feel that operations of that sort are going to take place? It seems to be a genuine dilemma but how do you expect that to be resolved by the various people involved?

  Mr Blair: I think that is a very fair point and it is extremely difficult, but, you see, this is where I think this process of engagement with the community has to be done on a very careful basis. I may be wrong in this, and there are others better qualified to speak on it than I, but I suspect that most Muslims would recognise that Forest Gate in a sense had to happen given the information that the police had. What I am trying to say is that part of the problem here is that the way that this discourse happens, and in particular because anybody who is prepared to come out and be critical is going to get a higher profile than anybody who is not, is the least helpful for the police trying to do their job. The truth is that if the police receive this information what can they do? They are bound to go and investigate and take whatever action, and if they did not most people would say they were not performing their duty properly. What this comes back to is this whole business of the relationship between the community and wider society and is it because there is a problem between the West and the Muslim world that these issues are more difficult to resolve? My point about this is that there is an issue to do with the West and the Muslim world and it does make these issues more difficult to resolve but you are absolutely right: there is no way round the situation in Forest Gate and we are going to have to work very hard to make sure that the community understands why these things are done and, obviously, the engagement between the police and the community is an important part of that.

  Q373  Mr Denham: Finally from me, Prime Minister, we know that you do not like public inquiries, full stop.

  Mr Blair: My experience of this is—well, you know.

  Q374  Mr Denham: Yes, but there has been a call from victims' families and also from the Muslim working groups for a public inquiry not just into intelligence and policing issues but also into the underlying reasons why such an event as last year's bombing could happen. You may not like public inquiries but it would meet a demand from an awful lot of people to have such an inquiry. Why is your position so implacable when it would seem to be a very positive gesture towards both victims and the wider community?

  Mr Blair: I believe that if we had a public inquiry we would divert enormous amounts of resource, energy and commitment from the police and the security services I believe that at the moment we have a clear, active threat. I want our police and our security services focused on dealing with that threat. If they end up being engaged in a public inquiry the reality is that, no matter what people might want or say they want at the outset, the resource, commitment and energy of those services will be diverted into that in circumstances where we know what has happened because the identities of these four people that carried out the atrocity are known. I totally understand that, particularly when families are reading constant reports in the media about pieces of information that the security services had that they did not act on. Each and every one of these stories is wrong and false. There was no CIA block of Mohammed Sidique Khan going into America. There was no device in his car planted before 7/7. There was no information given to the police before 7/7 about what they were up to. Each of these stories is simply wrong. I understand when people are reading this though that they think there is some great conspiracy going on or some information they are not getting, so I totally understand, particularly in the tragic circumstances of people still grieving and mourning and angry about the victims of this, why they might want a public inquiry, but my worry and why I think it would not be responsible to do it is that you end up diverting this vast amount of energy and resource into something that is, I am afraid, in the end going to tell us what we already know, which is that these four individuals went and committed this act.

  Mr Denham: Thank you, Prime Minister. The wreckage caused by terrorism lasts a very long time and we would like to use the last few minutes of this session to look at the situation at the moment in Northern Ireland.

  Q375  Sir Patrick Cormack: Prime Minister, what you have just said about public inquiries could be perhaps illustrated by Bloody Sunday and the amount of time and money that that took. You have invested a great deal of your personal energy into trying to bring about a solution in Northern Ireland and you have had the broad general support of Members in all parts of the House and most will hope that your 24 November deadline will be met, but, of course, what you are working for is a situation where people who have been convicted, sometimes of pretty heinous terrorist acts, and others who have supported them and given them succour will possibly be sitting down in the Assembly, maybe even in a power-sharing executive, with others. Is it not absolutely essential therefore that those people should unequivocally repudiate criminality and any association with it?

  Mr Blair: Yes, they have to abide by the commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means, and we have the ability through the Independent Monitoring Commission to see whether the undertakings and commitments that have been given by the IRA are being fulfilled.

  Q376  Sir Patrick Cormack: But the Independent Monitoring Commission, even in its latest and most positive report, has indicated that a considerable number of individuals on both the so-called Loyalist and the Republican side who had been paramilitaries are so involved. My Committee has recently completed an inquiry into organised crime. We publish a report in Armagh tomorrow and, without anticipating our findings, it is quite clear from the evidence that has been published (and much of it has been heard in camera) that there is this continuing involvement. Therefore, what are you going to do to give confidence to the community at large? Are you going to insist that before a power-sharing executive comes about there has to be a signing up to the Policing Board by Sinn Fein? Are you going to insist that there has to be an unequivocal pledge to abide by the rule of law and to sign up to the rule of law by those who would sit in government over their fellows?

  Mr Blair: Obviously, the nub of the issue has still got to be resolved. We cannot impose a formal pre-condition because the conditions are the ones set out already in the agreements that have been made. The problem on the Policing Board is that Sinn Fein want the devolution of justice and policing and the Unionists are hesitant about that, and both sides' positions are completely understandable, but I agree that it is important that Sinn Fein make it clear that they are against criminality of any kind and that those who are engaged in criminality should be pursued with the full force of the law.

  Q377  Sir Patrick Cormack: But they have not made it unequivocally clear either that they are utterly opposed or that they would wish them to be pursued in that way, and so how can you expect the rest of the community, including those law-abiding, democratic Nationalists who vote perfectly honourably SDLP election after election, to have trust and confidence unless there is this unequivocal commitment?

  Mr Blair: I think that is the issue. If you are trying to build confidence, leave aside pre-conditions, this never works unless there is confidence because in the end you cannot force people to go into government with each other.

  Q378  Sir Patrick Cormack: But then why, Prime Minister, do you persist with Sinn Fein? If Sinn Fein will sign up, fine. I accept that one has to draw lines. I accept that people with a murky past may have to play a part in the government of Northern Ireland, but if they will not do these things there are other law-abiding, democratic parties in Northern Ireland who could be encouraged to coalesce and form a government with Sinn Fein in opposition, so why do you persist if they will not sign up?

  Mr Blair: First of all, I think the reality is that there is no way of getting a government in Northern Ireland that does not have Sinn Fein as a partner. I have been over this territory now for almost a decade and every time you come to the crunch point the truth is that there is not really a consensus for a government that excludes them. However, you are right in saying—and this is a point we constantly make—that if people want the right confidence to be there to go into government then the logic of what the IRA have done up to now has to be followed through, and that logic is that if they are not engaged in criminality or terrorism then if crimes are committed the police should be given support in bringing to justice those who commit those crimes. I am trying to use my words carefully because this is, of course, part of the discussion that now needs to take place over the next few months, but the difficulty that you have, just so that one puts the thing in its full perspective, is that Sinn Fein say, "Yes, we will sign up to policing once it is devolved", but the Unionists say, "We do not agree with it being devolved, or not at this stage", and therefore it is slightly more complicated than Sinn Fein simply saying, "We are not backing the police". Having said that, I agree with you that it would be far more easy to get the right confidence that allows this thing to go forward, if indeed it were the case that everybody said, for example, if somebody is robbed or mugged in a Catholic or Republican area the police should be given support in bringing the perpetrator of that crime to justice.

  Q379  Sir Patrick Cormack: I think you would accept that it would be very difficult to envisage a government of any part of the United Kingdom containing within it people who were not signed up to the rule of law, and so will you give an absolute undertaking that you will do all you can over the next few months to get that unequivocal undertaking?

  Mr Blair: I will do all I can to make sure that people understand that you cannot pick and choose in the rule of law. None of this has been easy over the past few years because it gets at points very difficult to work out and pick a way through, but the one thing I am absolutely sure of is that there is no real reason now why people cannot, as I say, just follow through the logic of the position and get agreement.

  Chairman: We now move on to the third section, migration and population policy.

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