Previous Section Index Home Page

17 Apr 2007 : Column 35WH—continued

The breath was knocked out of me just a few weeks ago when the Home Secretary, while discussing the Home Office’s evolutions, changes and new organisation, seemed to suggest that Project Contest would remain in force unchanged. Indeed, he went on to say that the first strand, which we are discussing today—the “prevent” strand—would continue to be the responsibility of the Minister’s Department. I know that she agrees with and understands that, but is it not like sending a car in for an MOT test, being told, “I’m
17 Apr 2007 : Column 36WH
sorry, your car has failed to come up to scratch to run on the road,” and saying, “Okay, give me the keys and I’ll carry on driving it”? Nothing has been done about Project Contest since September 2005 when it was roundly condemned. Yet here we are with the Home Secretary saying that the “prevent” strand of this moribund strategy continues to be the responsibility of the Minister and her Department. I would be fascinated to hear the Minister’s comments on that.

I note the comments that have already been made about the pathfinder fund and other initiatives, which I will not go into in any more detail because they have been properly made already. However, let me continue to expand on the theme of cohesion and integration. I do not know how many others inside this Chamber were stunned by a comment made by the Prime Minister a couple of days after the 7/7 attacks. He came to the House and, for the most part, made a very good speech, but one particular comment struck me as being completely remarkable. He said that in the light of the bombings, we had to start a programme for Muslim outreach. Start a programme for Muslim outreach in July 2005? I wonder what sort of debate we would be having today if the aircraft plots of last summer had come to fruition and 3,000 or 4,000 people had been killed. Aircraft from this country would have exploded over the American mainland not only killing people, but fracturing the relationship between the United Kingdom and the US. In what climate would we now be debating? Would we not be asking about the Prime Minister’s 12-point plan—one of the products that came out of the 7/7 bombings?

I will not bore the Chamber by going through the plan point by point, but will the Minister comment on two specific points? First, can she expand on the points that have already been made about a commission to advise on better integration of those parts of the Muslim community that are less integrated than others? Exactly how far has that work got as part of the Prime Minister’s much vaunted 12-point plan? Secondly, could she explain the point about the ban on Hizb ut-Tahrir and its successor organisation Al-Muhajiroun? I was under the impression that the Prime Minister was the Prime Minister and that his word was law. Why has Hizb ut-Tahrir not been banned? Surely the Minister fully understands what an insidious organisation it is, what it does to cohesion and integration inside this country, and how it nurtures so much of the divisive and dangerous thinking that has already been described.

I have detained the House long enough. However, I find it extraordinary that in the light of the July 2005 plots—let us not forget that there was one successful attack and a planned attack that could have killed many more people—and in the light of several other failed attempts and the brilliantly intercepted but none the less deeply dangerous plan to attack aircraft last summer, many of the perpetrators of which came from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe and all of whom were British born, and in the light of the full and comprehensive understanding of the Government that we must try to prevent such atrocities, I am appalled and surprised by the fact that Project Contest continues to be in force, by the paucity of thinking that has gone into the Home Office reforms and by the fact that there has not been an appointment
17 Apr 2007 : Column 37WH
of a single Minister for security. It leaves me completely aghast and I should be grateful for an answer from the Minister.

11.49 am

Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) on the very thoughtful and comprehensive view that he has brought to the debate. In preparing for the debate, I had the opportunity to review what he said in the Queen’s Speech debate last autumn. He has covered much of the same ground today, and very felicitously if I may say so. He has left the Minister with some questions that I hope she will have the opportunity to answer. I certainly do not want to eat into her time.

I should like to underline the hon. Gentleman’s point that there is no one-shot solution to this issue. When he spoke about the Queen’s Speech, he said that we needed to get the analysis, the prescription and the treatment right. That is exactly right. I should like to take that medical analogy a little bit further and remind the Minister and the House that curing illness is two thirds about happiness and well-being and only one third about the pills and the treatment that people get. As far as our society is concerned, I think that we sometimes concentrate a little bit too much on the action points and not quite enough on the happiness and well-being point, which is what will come to our rescue in this complex situation.

It is a complex situation. The situation in Wycombe is different from that in Westminster and the situation in Burnley is different from that in Brixton. We make a mistake if we think that there is one national prescription or one national analysis that will deal with all the complexities that we face in all those different situations. Although the focus of our debate has been Muslims and social cohesion, we need to recognise not just that there is complexity between the different faith communities of those of different ethnic backgrounds. To focus solely on one solution in one area, then presume that we can apply it everywhere else, will almost certainly not be successful.

It was interesting to hear the speech by the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field). I agree with him that a lot of it has to be about community initiatives, not centrally imposed top-down solutions. I was less comfortable with his visit to the constitutional never-never land of Britain in the olden days, which I want to comment on in a minute or two.

The hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), who has suffered a little bit of turbulence recently, made a strong point in saying that we should get away from the language of the military: wars and campaigns and so on. Again, we need to understand that we are in a complex situation. We have friends, a few enemies and a large number of people who are neutral or agnostic. The language that we use will be of great importance in coming to a successful conclusion.

I want to spend a minute or two dealing with the historical realities versus the British myth, because a lot of the conversation that I hear in this building and in the media has a patronising tone about how Muslims need to shape up and fit in with British society, with an underlying assumption of some golden model of British society that has a historic inevitability about it
17 Apr 2007 : Column 38WH
that is wholly admirable and wholly desirable. I remind the House that 500 years ago, the Catholics were trying to blow this building up, but of course we do not think about it quite in those terms; we think of Guy Fawkes. A consequence of their attempt was a purge of Catholics in this country that exceeds anything that we have contemplated in the debate so far. Much more recently there was another attempt to blow up this House, which killed the then hon. Member for Eastbourne. On that occasion we did not have a purge against Catholics, which shows that in 500 years we have learned something in this society about understanding the difference between terrorism and an ideological belief or a religious conviction.

I remind hon. Members that we recently celebrated the fact that 200 years ago an Act was passed in this place for the abolition of slavery. We were all happy to celebrate that. William Wilberforce has of course been held as a champion of that cause, and he was an Anglican. It might be wondered why non-conformists, for instance, played no part in that parliamentary victory, and the answer is simple: they, like Catholics, were excluded from the House, which was open only to members of the Church of England. Any impression, therefore, that there was a golden age of integration and cohesion in England is completely inaccurate. Furthermore, although this is perhaps of marginal significance now, we cannot have a Catholic king, let alone an Islamic one.

You might wonder, Mr. Olner, which direction I am coming from, so let me say that I am a Baptist—a non-conformist. The Baptists were the first religious group in western Europe to argue for religious toleration—even for Catholics—and that was at a time when this country’s laws forced them to worship in Holland. When we talk to our Muslim colleagues, therefore, who have a very multifaceted faith just as Christians do, we need to be a little more sensitive and just a little less arrogant in what we say and presume.

Mr. Field: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I take on board what he has said. The point that several Conservative Members have been trying to make is not that everything has been perfect in Britain for the past 500 years, but that integration and cohesion require a sense of common purpose, common values and common aspirations. Those values evolve with time and with each wave of immigration, and large waves of Muslim immigration, for example, will inevitably have an impact on them going forward.

Andrew Stunell: I entirely agree. Indeed, in the second part of my comments, I want to address the fact that things have changed and developed exactly as the hon. Gentleman says. We have learned the lessons, and one of those lessons, which is reflected in the different way in which this country reacted when Guy Fawkes tried to blow this place up and when the IRA successfully blew up part of this place and killed an hon. Member, is not to conflate Muslims or Catholics with terrorism. At a time when it is commonplace to say that we want immigrants to know more about British history and to understand our background, we have actually forgotten our history and our background, and I sometimes wish that the Government would pick up on points such as those that I have just made.

17 Apr 2007 : Column 39WH

As regards the action that the Government have taken, I very much welcome the Commission on Integration and Cohesion, which was a sensible mechanism to put in place and which has the opportunity to explore the issues and introduce recommendations and possibly remedies. Indeed, the Liberal Democrats have made a submission to it and we look forward to its output in due course.

I am less impressed, however, with some of the other things that the Government have done. The Secretary of State’s recent six-point plan is a case in point—good intentions, but poor analysis. To return to my earlier analogy, the idea that the solution to the bomb that killed Airey Neave was closer supervision of Catholic churches would be seen as totally absurd, and the idea that the correct response to bombs on buses in London is to supervise mosques is similarly totally absurd. Of course, if supervision is introduced and is successful—I do not know what that means, and nobody can actually tell me what it is supposed to mean—those who do not like it will do exactly what the Baptists did 400 years ago: go to prison or go overseas. The state may therefore attempt to control the way in which people practise their beliefs, but that route will lead to failure.

That brings me to a point raised by the hon. Member for Wycombe. He apologised for producing a long string of acronyms—I must say that I lost my way as he went through them—but there are many different representative organisations for different parts of the Muslim faith. If the idea is that we can have an automatic, state-imposed council of Churches for the Muslim faith in this country, I have to say that that is as absurd as suggesting that the Government could impose a council-of-Churches model on the Christian Churches of this country. The diversity is enormous and of course the membership and the commitment of people from a Muslim background to any one or, indeed, any at all of the different branches of the Muslim faith is not by any means assured.

That brings me to the point on which I wanted to conclude. There has been much discussion of separatism and parallelism and whether that is a good or a bad thing. I think we should accept that it is a neutral thing. The Government do not propose to take action against the Plymouth Brethren, who keep themselves completely separate in this country. They do not participate in the political process, they do not intermarry with other groups and so on. I am sure that I shall be told that that is an absurd point because the Plymouth Brethren pose no threat; they have not been blowing up buses. Of course all that is true, but then why do we think that the right approach is to bring mosques into some kind of pro forma way of relating to this country and our society? Are Muslims not permitted to have an equivalent of the Plymouth Brethren when that is permitted for Christians?

I ask that question because sometimes the discussions that I hear seem to be leading people into a quagmire that cuts absolutely across what the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster said about this country, its unwritten constitution and its capacity to accept diversity, to take on board different values and to recognise and have mutual recognition for them. We need to be clear about what we are trying
17 Apr 2007 : Column 40WH
to achieve and not allow ourselves to be overcome by discussion of particular mechanisms for achieving it, which might be more costly.

Of course, there is the point about the dress code. I wanted to hear in the Tea Room what the hon. Members for Wycombe and for London and Cities—I cannot get that right; let us call him the hon. Member for London—wanted to have as the dress code option. In Britain, do we want a written constitution? I do not think so. If we do want a written constitution, should it say something about our dress code?

When I was in the third year in secondary school, boys were sent home for wearing trousers without turn-ups because that was not permitted. By the time I got to the sixth form, they were being sent home for wearing turn-ups, because that was not permitted, so I have some difficulty with an authoritarian system that dictates what people should wear. Of course people have to wear clothes that permit them to carry out their public functions, but please let us not get carried away by an outward symbol that we presume means something else. Let us look at what the something else is.

The last part of the evidence that the Liberal Democrats submitted to the Commission on Integration and Cohesion said that

12.4 pm

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Olner.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) on securing the debate. As the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) pointed out, my hon. Friend made a brilliant speech in the debate on the Queen’s Speech, in which he outlined the scale of the challenge that our society faces. That challenge is not one of religious separatism, but one of ideological division, and here I must take issue with what the hon. Member for Hazel Grove said in his fascinating, wide-ranging, but in some respects misconceived remarks. He was right to stress the importance of community initiatives. He was, as ever, right to stress the importance of pluralism and to recognise that one size does not fit all when we are dealing with the various problems that we have all had an opportunity to analyse in the debate. However, he was wrong to suggest that the problem is an explicitly religious one, and to draw the historical comparisons that he did.

I should point out that, when the hon. Gentleman said that we no longer believed in one version of British history that saw us moving towards a golden future, he was disavowing a grand Liberal tradition. That version of history, which saw us moving towards a more liberal future, which used to be known as Whig history, and was the product of Macaulay and Trevelyan, used to be the guiding light of his party. It is a pity that it is no
17 Apr 2007 : Column 41WH
longer. One of the insights of Macaulay, Trevelyan and other Whig historians is that what has made Britain great is not just our respect for pluralism and tolerance, but a belief in liberty, rooted in our historic institutions. Those institutions are challenged by the specific ideology outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe.

Islamism is distinct from Islam. Islam is a great faith that has nourished millions for hundreds of years. To this day it contributes intellectually and spiritually across the globe to enriching the lives of a great many people. No one on the Conservative Benches would want to criticise Islam as a faith. Indeed, it has enriched this country. Islamic scholars and tens of thousands of British Muslim citizens make Britain a better and more tolerant place today, but the best of those—in fact, the majority of them—also recognise that those who call themselves, sometimes, Islamists or jihadists, or who use another name, such as Salafists, and who follow the specific Islamist ideology are following a 20th-century totalitarian aberration that is intended to undermine the very tolerance that makes Britain both a safe and a warm house not just for its Muslim citizens but for all citizens. If we are to ensure that toleration will survive in this country, and protect pluralism and liberty, we need to be aware of the precise nature of the threat. That is why my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe deserves praise for drawing attention to that challenge in this House and elsewhere.

Andrew Stunell: The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to address his remarks to me, and of course I acknowledge the points that he was making about the hon. Member for Wycombe, who has rightly set out his stall on the matter. I hope that I conveyed the point that I wanted to make, which is that confronting the extremists is not the major job that we have. We must address the society.

Michael Gove: Both go hand in hand, and we cannot effectively champion the interests of moderate Muslims and of our pluralist, tolerant and liberal society, unless we show a determination to tackle extremism. It is the extremists who, in the past, have crowded out from the debate the moderate voices in the Muslim world. I am thinking particularly of the voices of female British Muslim citizens, which have been stilled and silenced as a result of extremists operating not just in mosques but more broadly in our society.

I want to say a word of appreciation about my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) and congratulate him on his speech. He brings huge expertise and great integrity to the debate. In his professional career before he joined us in this House he spent many distinguished years serving this country and defending its interests. While he has been in the House he has proved himself a dedicated public servant, and whenever he speaks on such issues it behoves all of us to pay close attention to the expertise and integrity that he brings to bear on them, as he did so effectively today.

I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) on his speech. Rather than inhabiting a constitutional Never Land, all that he did was stick up for those Enlightenment values that are the best protection for
17 Apr 2007 : Column 42WH
all minorities. In that respect I am delighted that his comments found a ready answering call in all my hon. Friends’ speeches.

When we are talking about integration and cohesion it is important for all of us to choose our words carefully and to tread with care. With your permission, Mr. Olner, I want to make a brief apology to the House. On a previous occasion, in December 2005, I had an opportunity to question the Home Secretary about his strategy for preventing extremism. I believe that several individuals whom the Government had asked to work with them on preventing extremism were themselves linked to extremist groups. I took the opportunity to raise in the House the names of some of those individuals. One of them, a gentleman called Ahmad Thomson, is a Muslim convert who was involved in holocaust denial, and I believe that it was right to draw attention to his involvement and that of several others whose enlistment by the Government in their fight against extremism seemed to be mistaken.

However, even as I was pointing out that the Government had made a mistake, I myself made a mistake. One of the individuals to whom I drew attention was Mr. Khurshid Ahmed. I remind the House that the gentleman to whom I drew attention has exactly the same name as another Khurshid Ahmed who is indeed linked with extremist activity, and who operates primarily in Pakistani politics but also has a link with institutions in this country. The Khurshid Ahmed who served on the preventing extremism together group is an admirable individual. I have now had the opportunity of meeting and working with him on several occasions.

When I discovered my mistake, I immediately wrote to Mr. Ahmed and to the Home Secretary to apologise and to put the record straight, but I have received representations from Mr. Ahmed’s Member of Parliament, the hon. Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin), who asked me to use any opportunity to place on the record in Hansard an acknowledgment of my mistake and to underline what I said in my letter, which was that Mr. Ahmed has done considerable work to further integration and cohesion in our society, and that he deserves nothing but the highest praise for his many years in public life. I am happy to use this opportunity to state on the record, for the benefit of Hansard and those outside, my appreciation of Mr. Ahmed’s work and of the calm, diligent way in which the mistake was brought to my attention by the hon. Member for Dudley, North, whose own contribution to fighting extremism in his area of the west midlands also deserves to be noted with credit by the House. I placed copies of the letters that I wrote in December 2005 to the Home Secretary and to Mr. Khurshid Ahmed in the Library earlier today.

Next Section Index Home Page