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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Sadiq Khan):
Community cohesion is about building better relationships between people from different backgrounds, including those from new and settled communities. The use of religious courts, such as sharia councils, to resolve private family and contractual disputes is well established,
and in itself does not have an impact on community cohesion. It is, however, important that all practices are compliant with our framework of equality legislation, as equality is essential in the underpinning of cohesion.
very concerned about sharia courts applying in the UK.
Presumably no one had told him that last year the Government licensed a whole lot of what they call Muslim arbitration tribunals. I appreciate that their powers are limited, but they are presided over by sharia judges and are therefore, in effect, state-licensed sharia courts. Is the Minister satisfied that individual women in particular who come before such courts will do so voluntarily in every case?
Mr. Khan: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, but I wish that he had read the entire quotation. For the avoidance of any doubt, I tell the House that sharia law has no jurisdiction in England and Wales, and there is no intention to change that. His point about women is one that I referred to in the answer that I gave a minute and a half ago. We are conscious of the fact that all sharia councils should abide by equality legislation. That is at the core of cohesion.
Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that only two of the eight mosques in my constituency are registered for marriage? Therefore, there can be problems, as couples are married in sharia law, but not in the law of this country. Sometimes there are problemsif the marriage breaks down and a settlement needs to be arrived at about the division of assets, for instance, where the woman can be let down by a sharia judge. Can my hon. Friends Department do anything to encourage mosques to register for marriage, so that those marriages take place within the law of the land?
Mr. Khan: I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She has huge experience of what is a serious issue. For the avoidance of doubt, the Marriage Act 1949 provides for mosques to be registered for the solemnisation of marriages according to the rites of the Muslim religion. There are certain conditions that need to be satisfied, and they are recognised in law without the need for a civil ceremony. Where a mosque is not registered, such as six of the eight mosques in my hon. Friends constituency, a separate civil ceremony is necessary. Otherwise, the spouses of the religious marriage are treated the same as common-law wives and therefore can be disadvantaged. It is really important that they seek advice where they can and that we encourage civil contracts where, for whatever reasons, civil ceremonies are not registered. However, it is just as important that we advise mosques to become registered. That will give women the protection that they need.
Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): I understand that as part of the Governments community cohesion policy the Minister has started working with mosques to teach citizenship. Could he enlighten us on what his Department is doing to bring mosques more into the mainstream and get them involved, such as through the registration that the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) talked about?
Mr. Khan: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I know that he takes a keen interest in these matters in Rochdale. He will be aware of the setting up of the Mosques and Imams National Advisory BoardMINABwith which we are working, along with communities and religious organisations, to improve how mosques operate. A good mosque is like a good church, a good synagogue, a good temple or a good gurdwara: it can be the hub of a local community and make it more cohesive. We are working with faith leaders to ensure that their mosques can use best practice from around the country, so that citizens in RochdaleMuslims and non-Muslimscan be best served by good mosques.
Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): Last weekend, I was at the big Eid celebration in Bletchley in my constituency. There was a stall there giving information on Islamic mortgages, which are consistent with sharia law. In the current economic climate, such mortgageswhich are, of course, available to non-Muslims as well as to Muslimsseem to be quite a good model. Is not this an example of a practice designed for only one community which could benefit the whole community and which could be accommodated in UK law?
Mr. Khan: I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She will be aware that, in consecutive Finance Bills, the Government have allowed Islamic finance to take place in this country. She makes the important point that sharia law is not, as is perceived by the media, just about cutting off hands. It covers Islamic finance, worshipping, and how one dresses and eats. She is absolutely right to say that ethically friendly mortgagesIslamic finance mortgagesare products that are now being taken up not only by more Muslims but by non-Muslims as well.
At some stage in the future I do not rule out the possibility that the Muslim diaspora in this country may be advanced enough.
That must mean either that he did not know about the Muslim arbitration tribunals or that he thinks that, eventually, their powers could be extended. To clear all this up, will he write to me listing exactly when these tribunals were approved, who approved them, who was consulted, who the judges are, what cases have been heard, and exactly what measures are in place to protect women? And will he place a copy of the letter in the Library?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his warm words. I am disappointed that somebody of his experience does not know the areas covered by the Ministry of Justice, and those covered by the Department for Communities and Local Government. He will of course be aware of the matter from the copy of the letter given to him by the shadow Home Secretary, the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), to whom the Home Secretary wrote on this issue. As my contacts with our Front Bench are clearly better than the hon. Gentlemans contacts with his own Front Bench, I will
ensure that the right Minister writes to him to give him the information that he has requested.
Andrew George: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that response. There is now apparent cross-party consensus that it is better that decisions taken locally and regionally are taken democratically rather than by Government appointees. Bearing in mind the obvious vacuum that has existed since the north-east referendum nearly four years ago, will the Secretary of State now welcome proposals from local partners in any part of the country that will provide a route map to allow regional decisions to be taken democratically?
Hazel Blears: Yes, I am well aware of the hon. Gentlemans long-standing record on campaigning, particularly in relation to Cornwall and to the convention in Cornwall. He is right to say that there is a recognition that decisions are best made at the appropriate spatial level in our country, where we can actually get practical change. That applies to planning matters, as well as to regional economic issues. He is also right to say that there is a gap in terms of accountability at regional level. We are taking a number of measures to address that, involving regional Ministers, regional Select Committees, and the scrutiny of regional organisations. He will also be aware of the multi-area agreements that we signed in the summer. These allow democratically elected local authorities to have a bigger say on planning, transport, housing and skills, which are significant issues in our country.
Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I do not want to be unhelpful or unkind [I nterruption. ] Seriously. Will the Minister tell us what the regional Ministers do, bearing in mind that, when I tabled a written parliamentary question asking what my regional Minister did or intended to do, the Secretary of State answered it? There is no scrutiny, and I genuinely do not know precisely what they are supposed to do. We are now told that there are to be assistant regional Ministers as well. Those of us in the minority who have never been invited to do anything are beginning to wonder what we have done wrong. I want to know what the link-up is between these regional Ministers and housing and communities. We do not know, and we apparently have no opportunity to ask questions. Why not? There is a problem of so-called joined-up government in relation to the Thurrock urban development corporation, which is part of a key Government policy. I want to address the person who can answer
Hazel Blears: I may be forgiven for my heart sinking when my hon. Friend said that he did not wish to be difficult, butyet he asked a pertinent question. He is right that there should be wider awareness of the role of regional Ministers. I think that regional Ministers have done some excellent work across the country over the past few months as regional champions for their areas [Interruption.] Hon. Members might not take regional issues seriously, but if they were genuinely in touch with the issues being raised in their communities they would know that regional Ministers have helped to bring together the regional development agency and the strategic health associationsand have made a difference. To my hon. Friend, I would say that the Government may not have utilised his talents sufficiently in the past
Hazel Blears: I do not think that I can afford my hon. Friend. Very shortly, however, he will see greater recognition of the role of regional Ministers with the establishment of the regional Select Committees, providing the opportunity to question regional Ministers, which is exactly what he is looking for.
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): Regional development agencies, which are extremely patchy in quality throughout the company, are with the disappearance of the regional assemblies soon to acquire significant new powers, notably in housing, yet it is very difficult to assess the quality of outputs from the development agencies. How do we assess whether a job has been created or a job safeguardedtwo of the most popular claims of the regional development agencies? What will the Secretary of State do to enable us to develop a proper methodology with which to judge the value for money of the regional development agencies, as this is contested, and to make sure that accountability goes beyond local council chiefs being filed in for the occasional audience?
Hazel Blears: The right hon. Gentleman, as ever, makes a good point from an informed perspective. We shall shortly respond to the consultation on the sub-national review, the results of which he is perhaps pre-empting. I promise him, however, that the results will be available soon. He is right that we need to bring regional development agencies and local authorities together to ensure that we have an integrated view of housing, planning and economic development.
I believe that many regional development agencies have made a very positive contribution. The response to the recent flooding of some of our regional development agencies, along with their local councils, was extremely impressive. If we look at the number of jobs created across the country through the good investment decisions of the RDAs, we clearly see that they have been good for this country. The right hon. Gentleman is right that there is more work to be done to ensure that we have better accountability and better scrutiny, but the RDAs role has been crucial in building the economy over these past few years.
Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan) (Lab):
My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) made a good point in saying that regional Ministers are not yet subject to sufficient scrutiny by the House. Does my
right hon. Friend agree that regional Select Committees are absolutely vital to that scrutiny, and can she give us some indication of when they are likely to be set up?
Hazel Blears: My hon. Friend is right. He has taken a tremendous interest in regional matters, particularly those regarding the north-west. I think that regional Select Committees will provide better scrutinythe ability to question regional Ministers about their work is essential. I can tell my hon. Friend that those Select Committees will be set up very soon, although I cannot give him a specific date here today. I realise that he is pressing to ensure that they are.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Will the Secretary of State tell us how these Select Committees will be manned and where the Clerks who are to serve them will be found? This is the most appalling piece of meaningless window dressing that the House has been presented with for a very long time.
Hazel Blears: As the hon. Gentleman will know from his extensive parliamentary experience, the regional Select Committees are a matter for the House, and their establishment is being considered by the Modernisation Committeeagain, on an all-party basis. He need only have listened to the contributions that have been made today to appreciate that Members in all parts of the House want more scrutiny of regional affairs and a closing of the accountability gap in relation to regional matters, and I believe that that view has widespread support throughout the House.
Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): Has my right hon. Friend considered the impact of retrospective rate increases, backdated by three years, on businesses in the port of Liverpool in the context of regional maritime policy?
Hazel Blears: I am very conscious of that issue. Meetings are taking place as we speak to assess the impact and establish what steps might be taken. My hon. Friend raises an important point, particularly in relation to retrospection, and I will undertake to keep her informed as the discussions continue.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): It would be interesting to hear what discussions the Secretary of State has had with her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about the perverse effect that the regional spatial strategy for the south-west may have on an area of outstanding natural beauty in my constituency, given its requirement for 48 new pitches for Gypsies and Travellers in the constituency. The planning inspectorate decided last week in the Minety case that Gypsies may set up their caravans anywhere they please until such time as the county provides that imaginary number of sites. What is the Secretary of State going to do about the perverse effect on the countryside?
Hazel Blears: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that if appropriate plans are in place to enable Gypsy and Traveller sites to be organised properly, that is far the best option. When no plan is in place, we must often resort to enforcement action, which is more costly, takes more time, and has a bigger impact on the area concerned.
The hon. Gentleman asks whether I have talked to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about the issue. I have not talked to my right hon. Friend about the specific issue in the hon. Gentlemans constituency, but I think he is as aware, as I am, that proper planning for Gypsy and Traveller sites is far the best way of dealing with such matters.
Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): To what extent have the Treasury and the Secretary of States Department been co-ordinating the advice given to the regions and to local authorities about their investment policies? Given that the credit rating agencies have been drawing attention to the weakening financial position of the Icelandic banks since February 2007, and that many months ago Moodys downgraded them to a BBB ratingextraordinarily low for a western bankhow has it come about that local authorities have apparently lost vast sums of council tax payers money?
Hazel Blears: Perhaps he has other sources, but the hon. Gentleman may be referring to a report in The Daily Telegraph about the credit rating agencies assessment of the banks. That depiction is not wholly accurate, and I am sure that when he sees the full picture the hon. Gentleman will recognise that for a considerable period the credit ratings were relatively high in terms of local authority investments.
The guidance that we issued in 2004 tells local authorities that they must give priority to security and liquidity, and that only in that context must they look for where they can obtain the highest return. I consider our guidance to be entirely prudent and responsible. Local authorities that have followed it and ensured that they spread their investments, while at the same time prioritising security and liquidity, will have made good and well-informed investment decisions.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): The Governments policy is to use permitted development rights to streamline the planning system, thereby assisting householders and local authorities alike, and to encourage sustainability.
Dr. Cable: Does the Minister agree that one of the significant factors behind the concreting of gardens, which has become a highly emotive issue in suburban constituencies, is the gradual encroachment of permitted development? Does he think that it would be useful to take a fresh look at the balance to be struck between the understandable wish of people to improve their property and the wider environmental impact?
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