By Paul Goodman
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Eight months on from the Prevent Review, we have at last a Government integration strategy. As Harry Phibbs reports in our Local Government section, the Daily Mail has an interview with Eric Pickles about its publication later today. The Communities Secretary says that tolerance has become twisted; that a few people want to disown the Christian faith and the English language; that public bodies have been bending over backwards to translate documents into foreign languages, and that men and women have been disciplined for wearing modest symbols of Christian faith at work.
Go for it, Eric!
The Daily Express says that Whitehall diversity targets are to be scrapped; that “community cohesion" policies in national and local government must promote national unity and British values rather than encouraging ethnic or cultural division". The Communities Secretary is quoted as saying: “Under Harriet Harman’s agenda, the Labour government encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream. Political correctness replaced common sense, people were left afraid to express legitimate concerns and frustrations."
An inconvenient question remains, however – namely that given human rights laws, the agglomerated mass of equality legislation, the entrenchment of separatist ideas and the funding discretion of local authorities, how much is really going to change?
I haven't yet had a chance to read the strategy, though I've spoken to sources close to the Secretary of State. But the thrust of it seems clear:
- It is broadly similar to the draft strategy that I revealed in January. This was divided up into five themes: Common Ground, Responsibility, Participation, Social Mobility and Tackling extremism. The first two sections have now been merged into one called "Promoting Shared British Values". The second melds the responsibility and participation sections (it is now called "Encouraging participation and empowerment"). The third is now labelled "Outflanking Extremism" (which suggests that this will not so much be confronted as bypassed) and the last "Promoting social mobility".*
- Pickles has been frustrated by the publication delay, but has been quietly implementing the policy in any event. I reported in January that other Departments were concerned about a lack of rigour in the draft strategy, and Downing Street clearly believes that the plan is finally in good order. But the Secretary of State and other Departments have quietly been pressing ahead with its uncontested parts: work with Youth United, Pickles's beloved Curry College (which I revealed last year), the National Citizen Service. He wants to develop the college idea further with "cordon bleu" scholarships.
- Pickles is going big on the faith angle. The strategy proclaims: "Some see religion as a problem that needs to be solved. We see it as part of the solution…The days of the state trying to suppress Christianity and other faiths should be over." This fits neatly with last week's Sayeeda Warsi Vatican speech and Pickles's action over council prayers. The Government believes that faith communities have a place in the public square – running schools, hospices, homeless shelters, employment programmes, projects for people with substance abuse problems, debt advice services, and so on.
- Full details of the Department's plan to "outflank extremism" will apparently come later. Sources claim that the section about it in today's document was inserted at a late stage, and that preparation was made last week to publish the strategy without it at all. The Department confirmed to me yesterday that more details will be published in due course. This delay could simply reflect Ministers' desire to keep its security and integration strategies separate. Or it could indicate that the Government has not yet settled on a methodology for deciding which groups and individuals it considers extreme. Or both.
The strategy has clearly been tightened up. I'll be interested to see if it refers to teaching British history in schools, but Pickles will apparently have more to say soon about teaching English to migrants. The Express's detail about the scrapping of Whitehall diversity targets is encouraging, and the Communities Secretary has the authority in his Department to drive such change through.
The Communities Secretary has sensibly decided that the Government's cross-departmental working group on anti-Muslim violence and hatred will bear that name – and not be saddled with the problematic term "Islamophobia" in its title. Fiyaz Mughal, the director of Faith Matters and an adviser to Nick Clegg, has won the Government contract to try to measure the extent of that hatred and violence. This MAMA project may be the genesis of a Muslim equivalent of the Community Security Trust, which monitors anti-semitic activities and incidents, just as the new working group mirrors the work of the one on anti-semitism.
The strategy is welcome, but the questions linger – particularly about extremism. Who does the Government consider extreme – Stop Islamisation of Europe, the Muslim Council of Britain? And why? What counter-extremism plans does it have in the event of another India-Pakistan confrontation or – even more pressingly – British involvement in an military assault on Iran? Does it have any plans to help stop tensions between Christians and Muslims hardening, given the rise of religious cleansing abroad? Is it prepared for the consequences of a terror strike, God forbid, on a synagogue or mosque or temple – or church?
It may be that the "Outflanking Extremism" section of today's strategy has answers. But if it doesn't, they can't be postponed indefinitely.
2pm Update: The paper itself - Creating the Conditions for Integration – lists the original five sections. The Department was the source of the four-section division that I quote above.