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17 Apr 2007 : Column 42WH—continued

I mentioned that it is important to acknowledge our mistakes, and I believe that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, in her conduct since taking on responsibility for integration and cohesion matters, has acknowledged that the Government made errors in the past. She did that not in a breast-beating way, but in an appropriately respectful fashion. Before sitting down and allowing the Minister to reply to the many questions that have been put by my hon. Friends,
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I would like to acknowledge that the Government have moved but also to indicate that there is still some way to go.

I believe that the Government have accepted that, before the fateful events of 7 July 2005, they had fallen down on the job when it came to questions of integration and cohesion, and of extremism, specifically within the Muslim community. They have acknowledged that the principle of the covenant of security—that unless someone is actively engaged in violence against the state, their activities would be tolerated, no matter how extreme their preaching—was a mistake. More than that, I believe that the Government have acknowledged that some of their chosen partners in the Muslim community and elsewhere were not as well chosen as they might have been.

The Secretary of State was absolutely right to point out recently that Muslim organisations that boycott holocaust memorial day should no longer receive public money. I also note with approval that recently she has been showing a willingness to work with the Sufi Muslim Council, the British Muslim Forum and especially the Fatima Women’s Network, all of which are more moderate Muslim organisations.

The Government’s greater openness to working with moderate, mainstream organisations is to be welcomed, but it provokes a couple of questions. First, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe pointed out, the Government still seem to be taking a disjointed and far from synoptic approach. I mention one area that he did not, which comes under the rubric of the Department for Education and Skills. Why is it that the Government’s adviser on the teaching of Islam in higher and further education, Dr. Ataullah Siddiqui, is linked with the Islamic Foundation and the Markfield Institute of Higher Education, both of which are institutions that were set up by the Jamaat-e-Islami party, an explicitly Islamist organisation, and its supporters? In other words, why is the man who is charged with checking extremism on Britain’s campuses in fact linked with a body that was set up by a separatist Islamist organisation?

Secondly and more broadly, I welcome again what the Secretary of State said about seeking to encourage mosques to register with the Charity Commission and, as a result, receive not only help with fundraising, but a higher level of oversight and help with governance. What, however, do we do with mosques that explicitly reject that kind offer because they wish to carry on with extremist preaching and teaching? How do we ensure, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe said, that the flood of extremist Wahabi literature and, indeed, Saudi money into certain mosques is effectively checked so that the process of indoctrination in an extremist ideology is scrutinised and we deal effectively with teaching that might encourage a new generation of people who believe in separatism and division?

In that regard, I am very interested in my hon. Friend’s question about the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board. Why is the Muslim Association of Britain—the UK branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organisation—on an equal footing with the British Muslim Forum and the
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Muslim Council of Britain? Why is Finsbury Park mosque, which used to be the haunt of Abu Hamza, now run by the Muslim Association of Britain’s Dr. Azzam Tamimi? Why, having got rid of one extremist, do we have another version of extremism in control?

I have a final request for the Minister. I appreciate that time is pressing and that she has a limited amount of time in which to answer all our questions, but can she prevail on the Secretary of State and the Cabinet to ensure that we have a full-day debate on this issue in Government time? Given the setting-up of the commission, the Secretary of State’s announcements and, crucially, the prospect of significant changes in the Government machinery for dealing with this most sensitive of issues, as well as the Government’s fitful record of implementation, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Newark referred, we need the Government to give a clear statement in their own time on precisely what the new strategy is. That will give those Opposition Members who wish to see them and our multi-ethnic society succeed an opportunity to make an effective contribution to this ongoing process.

12.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Meg Munn): I congratulate the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) on securing this important debate. In direct response to the final point made by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), let me say that the hon. Member for Wycombe raised the issue of a future debate with the Leader of the House during business questions, who said that it was under consideration. This debate, too, will bring the issue to my right hon. Friend’s attention.

I am pleased to have this opportunity to debate issues of integration and cohesion in the UK and to outline the significant work that is under way to build integrated and cohesive communities in which all are welcome and able to flourish. The debate also gives me the opportunity to dispel some of the myths that exist and which hon. Members present have, unfortunately, reiterated. I am therefore grateful to be able to put the record straight.

I doubt that I shall be able to answer all the many questions that hon. Members have raised, but before I seek to do so, I want to set out what the Government are doing. I give a commitment, however, that I shall write to hon. Members if I do not have time to respond to the issues that they have raised, and hon. Members may wish to prompt me on various issues following the debate.

First, we need to recognise the enormous progress that has been made on this issue. Equality between individuals and good relations between communities are much better than they were in the 1950s and 1960s. Immigration has brought huge economic and other benefits to our country, and our cultural life has been enriched beyond measure by people who have made their home here. However, we also know that diversity can bring tensions and that big challenges remain, particularly as new pressures, brought about by increasing globalisation and EU expansion, are felt in our neighbourhoods. Such pressures can be exploited in extremist thinking and rhetoric, whether by radical Islamic groups or far right parties.

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In the face of such challenges, integration and cohesion are fundamentally about a simple question: how can we live together in all our diversity, with our different backgrounds and beliefs? That simple question encompasses a set of more challenging issues for us to think about as we consider the kind of society in which we want to live: one that is at ease with itself, confident and united in diversity; and one in which we continue to respect difference, but at the same time ensure security and a sense of solidarity.

To get to that place, it is crucial that all sectors of our society—private, public and voluntary—as well as communities themselves, continue to work together towards a common goal of integrated and cohesive communities. I appreciate the comments made by hon. Members today that this is not just a matter for Government. Although the Government clearly have an enormously important role to play, it is essentially also a matter for communities.

I start by stating that one of our core principles regarding cohesion is that the focus on local communities should be critical. The integration of new communities and the promotion of cohesion between existing groups, although driven by national events and changes, is largely experienced at a local level. The global changes that shape our lives are often best met with local solutions and on that point, I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell). What happens in one community is not the same as what happens in another and we need to have responses that work at a local level.

The machinery of government changes that took place in May last year, which the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) conveniently seems to have ignored, were critical for creating a stronger focus on cohesion at a local level because responsibility for community cohesion was transferred to the Department for Communities and Local Government. Clearly, that took place some time after the report of September 2005 from which he read. That transfer of responsibility is why the DCLG is helping to develop the local infrastructure to support our partners in their effort to build cohesion, first, by making cohesion an integral part of local government’s role as the leading strategic body in the local area, which is a role emphasised in the White Paper “Strong and Prosperous Communities”published last October. The White Paper recognises that local authorities are best placed to understand the particular challenges that their areas face, and to work with communities and local partners to decide how to respond.

Secondly, the Department wishes to ensure that we understand what works at a local level, and I endorse the comments rightly made by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath about Khurshid Ahmed from Dudley, who I know personally. One of the aspects of the work that he has done with the Government is to demonstrate what works at a local level. There are some good examples of work taking place in areas such as Dudley from which we can learn.

The Commission on Integration and Cohesion, about which I hope to say more later, has the role of examining how to develop a local and practical approach. The commission will make recommendations in June on how, six years on from the disturbances in the northern mill towns and two years on from 7/7, we can build resilience to tensions and conflict in our communities.

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Finally, we are looking across Whitehall to identify what other structures have a role. For example, we are considering the role of schools in promoting community cohesion through a curriculum and ethos that supports diversity and promotes a sense of common identity. By showing pupils how different communities share common experiences and values we hope to make them feel part of a broader regional and national community. The Education and Inspections Act 2006 places a duty on governing bodies of schools in England to promote community cohesion, and for Ofsted to report on the contribution made by each school. That legislation will come into force in September this year and I hope that it will build on the good work that many schools are already engaged in. I endorse the comments of the hon. Member for Wycombe about the importance of people having influence by becoming school governors in their communities.

Infrastructure is only part of the story. Those involved in building cohesion on the ground also have a vital role. For example, people working in the voluntary and community sectors are critical in building social capital and forging bridges between communities. Local charities, youth volunteering groups, and sports teams all have a role to play in bringing communities together and promoting the sustained and meaningful interaction that is at the heart of strong, cohesive communities.

Faith communities also contribute to social and community cohesion through the values and activities that underpin good citizenship, such as, altruism, respect for others, ethical behaviour and community solidarity, alongside strong examples of inter-faith work and outward-facing activities. The work of those organisations is taking place within a broader framework set from the centre, which includes a robust commitment to equal opportunities for all. As hon. Members will know, from October this year the new commission for equality and human rights will be in place. That is a fundamental part of saying that equality is an issue for everyone and that we must eliminate racism from our society.

The Government have, in recent years, strengthened our legislative framework, and—this has not been discussed today but is of concern to hon. Members—welcomed the recent all-party parliamentary inquiry’s constructive and comprehensive report on anti-Semitism in particular.

Continued support for those organisations taking a stand against Islamist extremism is important. Cohesive communities can help in our efforts against extremism of all varieties, but our work on preventing violent extremism in the name of Islam requires something else as well. We know from our experience of 7/7 that even in the most apparently cohesive communities pockets of extremists can be operating. That is why my Department launched its “preventing violent extremism” action plan earlier this month, which is first and foremost about winning the struggle for hearts and minds, and supporting Muslim communities in building their resilience to extremists’ messages. It will effect a significant change in the Government’s work to tackle radicalisation, including a £6 million fund to support local community-based projects.

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I shall respond to some of the issues that the hon. Member for Wycombe raised about the “preventing extremism together” project, which has been misrepresented. The project was put together in September 2005, and the report that only a few of its recommendations have been implemented is simply not correct. The working groups came together—I was part of them in my ministerial role—and the first steps were taken at that point to put together a set of practical recommendations to build a partnership between the Government and Muslim communities.

I shall respond to a question from the hon. Gentleman about a matter that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath also raised. The Government are not seeking to have one Muslim organisation to talk to. The reality of all groupings—we have been into the history of a number of other religious organisations—is that every community has many facets, and the Secretary of State has made it clear that it is important to work with organisations that support us in our role, that want to ensure that we actively tackle extremism and that are part of the drive to deal with the issues that concern us all. The truth is that the latest stage of our work and the action plan that the Secretary of State presented recently is supported by a whole range of Muslim organisations and scholars who see it as an enormously important step that we must take in our further work on the matter.

Michael Gove: Will the Minister give way?

Meg Munn: May I continue, because I fear that I may not be able to deal with some of the important issues that have been raised?

I shall deal with the points that the hon. Member for Newark unfortunately set out incorrectly. Let us be clear about Project Contest. The Home Secretary held a review of the counter-terrorism strategy in autumn 2006, and the result was cross-Government agreement that the DCLG was best placed to lead on “prevent” in building resilient communities. The creation of a new office dealing with sectarianism and terrorism has again been confirmed in the House, and the DCLG will continue to have that role, which was first put in place in May 2006. It will have an important role in working with other Departments on the whole Project Contest strategy, of which “prevent” is one part.

Unlike the Conservatives, whose view is that the issue could be dealt with by just one Minister and one Department, we recognise that it is hugely complex. It is important that not just the changes to the machinery of government in 2006, but those that are now coming forward mean that Departments will continue to act and to work in the roles that best suit those Departments and their overall brief.

Finally, the Commission on Integration and Cohesion is enormously important and we must be clear that it will look at a range of issues, including shared civic value, but there is no intention at this point—

Mr. David Amess (in the Chair): Order. We now come to the next debate.

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Military Procurement

12.30 pm

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): I am indebted to the House for giving me the opportunity to raise this matter yet again; such debates have almost become an annual event. The hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) is in his place, and I am indebted to him for starting this debate long before I became the Member for Bridgwater.

An important munitions factory is based in the heart of my constituency, and as the Minister is aware, BAE Systems is also responsible for equipping some of the ageing fleet of Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft. Unfortunately, as this House and the public know, one of those planes dropped out of the sky in Afghanistan last September, tragically killing the entire crew, including an RAF sergeant from Bridgwater. My local munitions factory in Bridgwater is due to be closed imminently—that could happen at the end of the year—and suffice it to say that a very powerful British company is unfortunately not the flavour of the month in my constituency.

Procuring contracts for sensitive defence products always depends on the attitude of the Ministry of Defence, its Ministers and, unfortunately, the Treasury. That is why I am pleased to see the Minister of State in his place across this Chamber. I want to tell him a few home truths in a nice way, and although I shall sometimes be blunt, I know that he listens to what hon. Members have to say.

Defence is a genuine interest of mine. I used to be an adviser at Land Command headquarters and I maintain the rank of major. I am also still on the reserve list, so the Minister could doubtless get his revenge by sending me to places far and foreign should he wish.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): Where would you like to go? [Laughter.]

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: I am also indebted to the Minister’s staff for correcting a typo when I managed to get the wrong country.

I am nearing the end of a privileged spell of service with the RAF, which has taken me to the very front line in Afghanistan twice in the past few months with the armed forces parliamentary scheme. It is a remarkable scheme, and many of us are indebted to the professionalism and superb ability of our armed forces. I am always struck by the enormous enthusiasm and resilience of our soldiers and airmen. They make it their business to get the job done in some of the most hostile terrain in the world, even though they are unfortunately often without the proper kit. Our people are performing daily miracles in these places and they deserve the united applause and support of this House—I know that they get it.

They also deserve the Government’s support in all shapes and forms, especially through procurement. That means providing more than the bare minimum. I have no doubt that the Minister will respond, as we all sometimes do, by reeling off huge, impressive-sounding figures to show how much has been spent and what has happened. We all accept that defence is always
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expensive; everybody is aware that even the bare minimum does not come cheap. My argument is that we are in danger of cutting too many corners and of procuring nothing but danger for the very people who courageously carry the flag for this country.

My first trip to Afghanistan was a grim reminder of just how dangerous the place is; the wreckage of the RAF Nimrod that came down last September was still in the desert. The plan was to lay a wreath there for those killed in the accident, but the last resting place of this huge aircraft was slap bang in the middle of an effective Taliban firing range. So I had the great honour of laying a wreath at the memorial in the Kandahar base on behalf of the Knight family. I got to know some of the brave airmen, and they told me harrowing stories about the conditions in which they are working and the equipment that they are expected to use.

Everything that I have read about the battle of Britain inspired me to believe in the imagination and single-mindedness of our flyers, and that has not changed one jot; they are incredibly gifted people with true grit and humour. The difference is that in 1940 they were flying state-of-the-art Spitfires that were the envy of even the Luftwaffe, whereas in 2007 they are flying 30-year-old Nimrods. Usually, more Nimrods are sitting on tarmac with the bonnet up than are doing what they were built for, but that is hardly surprising as the Nimrod is based on the airframe of the Comet airliner—they stopped flying Comets when I was in short trousers. No arm of the military cares to admit that its toys are falling to bits, and that damages troop morale.

The morale of aircrews on Nimrods is pretty close to rock bottom these days. If he has not already done so, I invite the Minister to take a look at the Professional Pilots Rumour Network at I would not normally suggest that a Minister should look at a rumour-mongering site, but that one is interesting, because it involves the airmen themselves. It cannot, of course, be relied on to tell the whole truth, but the airmen are using it as a valve for internal grumbles. I should like to quote from a pilot’s entry of a few weeks back:

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