Previous Section Index Home Page

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
15 Oct 2008 : Column 888
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,
15 Oct 2008 : Column 889
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.

6.47 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Sadiq Khan): It is a pleasure for me, Mr. Speaker, to wind up a debate for the first time with you in the Chair, and that its subject should be local government. I was a councillor for 12 years, serving with great pride in the ward of Tooting in the London borough of Wandsworth. The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), who opened the debate for the Conservatives, also has considerable experience in that regard.

When the Minister for Local Government opened the debate, he spent almost an hour talking about local government, and he rightly went into huge detail about the consequences for local authorities of the problems in Icelandic banks. The fact that we have ended our
15 Oct 2008 : Column 890
debate with a discussion on the means of preventing extremism demonstrates the depth and breadth of the issues that local government covers, from the free doughnuts proposed by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst to the pungent smell of mushrooms in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann).

I want to begin by paying tribute to the thousands of local authority employees; who do a tremendous amount of work, and who often dedicate their careers to public service through being council employees, and to the many others associated with local government. I also pay tribute to the thousands of councillors who do such a huge amount of work around the country. Many distinguished Members of Parliament are former councillors; some are about to be former councillors; and some might have become better parliamentarians had they had the experience that some of us have gained in council chambers.

I have only a few minutes in which to touch on many of the points made in the debate. I enjoyed the passion with which the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst talked about the Icelandic bank crisis. He is a West Ham fan, and one can appreciate why he has been quite troubled over the past few days. We were not sure where his passion came from, but we gave him the benefit of the doubt and decided that it was a passion for local government.

The hon. Gentleman brought a smile to my face, as someone who served in the London borough of Wandsworth for 12 years. He will remember when, in 1991, the then Prime Minister decided to set a huge dampening grant for certain local authorities. Westminster and Wandsworth were the two beneficiaries that ended up with a zero council tax. When the hon. Gentleman referred in his speech to “screwing the system”, I, of course, knew that he had recently re-read the John Major autobiography, so he knew why some local authorities got a huge whopping dampening grant and could set such low council taxes.

I particularly enjoyed the hon. Gentleman’s analysis of local government finance and the robust approach that he took to it, as well as the detail with which he explained the issues. I have to say, however, that although he spent a lot of time—almost 30 minutes—offering a critical analysis, I do not remember any beef in terms of what his party would do if, God forbid, it were to form the next Government. That silence spoke volumes.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the bonfire of regional bodies that have huge levers to do a huge amount of good and about the bonfire of the standards regime and accompanying regulations that ensure that councillors maintain minimum standards. He will be aware that, in the current climate, there is a debate to be had about the bonfire of regulations in the mid-80s, which some say led to today’s problems. We await with interest the evolution of Conservative policy on local government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) spent considerable time talking about his concerns about Northumberland. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government has visited Northumberland and that he was making copious notes as my hon. Friend was speaking. I am sure that some of the points raised will be dealt with via correspondence.

15 Oct 2008 : Column 891

The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) spoke about issues ranging from the White Paper and localised business rates to the unfairness of council tax, as she sees it, but the interventions on her demonstrated how unfair we think her proposals are as an alternative. The hon. Lady talked about police authorities and revaluation, but her main concern—and rightly so—was the Icelandic bank crisis and its impact on local authorities. She wanted us to provide more detail about what sort of authorities the 16 affected were—the 13 and the other three that my hon. Friend mentioned. I cannot go into any more detail than did my hon. Friend, except to say two things. First, a joint statement has been published by the Local Government Association and the Government, which the hon. Lady can obtain at the end of the debate. Secondly, the sort of local authorities affected are wide ranging: there is no one type, as they are different councils in different parts of the country and the circumstances are different in each case.

The hon. Lady also criticised us—unfairly, I thought—for following events rather than acting in advance of them. She will be aware that we set up a rapid response team before we knew about the need to use it for local authorities and she will know that its representatives are now helping local authorities up and down the country. I also have to disagree with her analysis and agree with that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw, who said that now is not the time for post-mortems or the blame game. That time will come, but our priority now must be to ensure that investments are safe, that jobs are secured and that local authorities are able to serve our constituents. It is not possible to have it both ways. On the one hand, we are criticised for trying to ensure some minimum standards and for trying to help local authorities through partnerships; on the other hand, we are criticised for not having given more stringent advice to councils on where they should invest their money. As I say, one cannot have it both ways: devolution means just that.

I thought that the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) made an excellent speech, and I say that in a non-patronising way. As a London councillor and London MP, I will not have experienced first hand some of the changes that he articulated. I know that he feels passionately about the subject and he made a clear case. Let me inform the House that the hon. Gentleman was correct that we are still waiting for the boundary committee’s final advice to the Secretary of State at the end of 2008. Until we receive that advice, the Government have no role, so I am not going to comment further on the specifics that we heard this afternoon. I assure the House, however, that we will give proper consideration to the boundary committee’s advice and that we will take note of all representations received in the allotted time before we take any decision.

The hon. Gentleman also spoke about the accountability of regional Ministers. He criticised the setting up of regional Select Committees because he saw them as further increasing the size of government, but I am sure he will be aware that Select Committees play a huge role in providing scrutiny of Governments through checks and balances. The hon. Gentleman may not be aware that on 6 November, a debate is scheduled on that very topic and we will see if the recommendations on those Committees are supported.

15 Oct 2008 : Column 892

Julia Goldsworthy: The Minister is absolutely right to say that Select Committees provide an important balance, but does he not think that if the Government were committed to demonstrating Select Committees’ commitment to the devolution process, their chairmanships would reflect the political party balance of the region rather than which party is in government? It does not look as though we shall have anything other than a Labour chair of the south-west regional Select Committee.

Mr. Khan: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that helpful intervention. As she knows from her long experience in the House, those are matters for the House and its administration. I am aware from some of the minutes of the Modernisation Committee, which make pretty turgid reading, that there has been a huge amount of discussion about the issue. I gather that the meetings were more fun that the minutes.

The hon. Member for East Devon also raised a matter relating to the Minister for the South West, my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw). I will not go into it, for reasons that the hon. Gentleman will understand. The Minister for the South West is a friend, and an honourable friend.

Mr. Swire: The Minister is being very gracious in giving way. Let me clarify for the record that I referred to the hon. Member for Exeter in the context of the south-west, and pointed out that whatever I said about him could apply equally to other regional Ministers.

Mr. Khan: I think the hon. Gentleman said that my hon. Friend was building a fortress around Exeter so that he could not be defeated. I paraphrase his remarks.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw, who is also a former councillor, made an excellent speech. He explained why the White Paper and the forthcoming Bill are so crucial, giving examples of the problems that exist in the current system. The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne expressed a similar view when she said that the status quo could be improved, and that we should do our best to improve it. My hon. Friend’s analysis of the Icelandic crisis was cool and measured. He rightly said observed that at some stage we must re-evaluate the reasons for the position in which certain councils find themselves, and 22 May is clearly a date that we shall want to revisit.

The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) is a friend, and I always enjoy his contributions. He spends a great deal of time in the Chamber. I recall his raising the issue that he raised today back in the days when I was parliamentary private secretary to the Leader of the House. The Buncefield issue is important to him, and it should be important to the rest of us. As the Minister responsible for fire and rescue, I can assure him that we are considering all the issues relating to Buncefield in the light of the hazards report. I shall write to him, and if he is not satisfied with my response I shall be happy to meet him. I recognise that his passion arises from concerns expressed to him by his constituents, and his own frustration over what he considers to be inaction over the past two or three years.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned empty property relief for business premises. As he will appreciate, on day 10 of my new job I am not entirely on top of the subject.

15 Oct 2008 : Column 893

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): Sort it out!

Mr. Khan: The shadow Deputy Chief Whip is heckling me from a sedentary position. I ask him to give me time. We shall see what we can do.

The hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) made an interesting speech. He spoke of the way in which the south is deprived by the rich, the way in which the relative-needs formula is unfair on his constituents, and the way in which his council is poorly funded. Some of us talk of a victim mentality. That applies not just to certain groups or communities, but to certain Members of Parliament and councils who speak of what they consider to be partial funding. But let me add, in fairness to the hon. Gentleman, that at least he was brave enough to come forward with a manifesto on local government for his party. He wants to abolish the national standards regime, to change the funding regime, and to abolish the Barnett formula. We shall see whether his suggestions are taken up by those on his Front Bench.

The hon. 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.

It being Seven o’clock, the motion lapsed, without Question put .

15 Oct 2008 : Column 894

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I do not want to pick on any particular Member, but many of us have sat in the Chamber for hours today during this very important and detailed debate with contributions from all sides, and it is enormously frustrating for those of us who have sat here for so long to find that a Member has walked in and sat on an empty Bench in another part of the Chamber and got preferential treatment because a Deputy Speaker had no choice but to call them, even though they have not participated in the debate and do not know what comments have been made from the Front or Back Benches. As I have said, this is not particularly an attack on the Member who did that, but it is hugely frustrating for Back Benchers who sit here for hours on end trying to speak in an important debate. What protection can you give us, Mr. Speaker?

Mr. Speaker: Order. This is difficult. I am the custodian of the rules, and anything that happened here tonight was within the rules. If it is any comfort to the hon. Gentleman, let me tell him that these things happened to me in 1979—that is going back a wee bit—when I was sitting on the Benches the hon. Gentleman is sitting on now. So these things have happened before. However, perhaps I can use this opportunity to put on the record that I expect Members—if possible, as I know there are other pressures on them—to be present for the opening speeches. They should at least hear the Government Front-Bench and official Opposition speeches; that is no disrespect to the Liberal Democrats, but that is the way it should be. If Members then have to leave the Chamber, perhaps they can come back and hear as much of the debate as possible. It has also come to my attention that sometimes official Opposition spokesmen and women and Government Ministers do not return for the wind-ups—that has not been the case in this debate, but it has happened in other debates—and I am putting on the record that I expect the same of Front-Bench Members as I expect of Back Benchers. With that little lesson over, I think we can move on to the Adjournment debate.

15 Oct 2008 : Column 895

University Research Funding

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. B lizzard .]

Next Section Index Home Page