By Matthew Barrett
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Yesterday afternoon saw Communities and Local Government questions in the House. Eric Pickles is often a target for sharp Labour questions - because of his combative approach, and the fact that his department is making cuts in one of Labour's bureaucratic strongholds, local government.
This belligerent attitude from the Labour - front and back - benches was on show yesterday.
By Tim Montgomerie
Highlights from yesterday's Commons debate on the Localism Bill.
Rory Stewart summarised why localism works: "This is a strange time and place because all hon. Members believe in that decentralisation, whether we call it localism, hyper-localism or double hyper-localism, but we are obstructed by our anxieties about power, knowledge and legitimacy. Let us remember the basic instinct and work together. We should support the Bill because we know that communities know and care more, and that they can and ought to do more than distant officials in Penrith, Carlisle, London or Brussels."
Stewart Jackson on new powers for local governments to act more freely: "The big society is about empowering local people to make decisions at local level. It should be seen not as lots of disparate, discrete initiatives at local level, but within the context of the Bill's provisions. I see the general power of competence, for example, as a key unlocking a huge amount of progressive development by local authorities. The New Local Government Network specifically praised the general power of competence and said: "This represents both a significant philosophical shift towards local democracy and a practical transfer of power to the local level." That is something that Labour never did in its 13 years of power, although it promised to do so in its 1997 manifesto. The other important issue-unfortunately, one cannot look in detail at the 406 pages of the Bill and its 201 clauses and 24 schedules in five minutes-is whether it is permissive, as opposed to prescriptive, as an approach to local government? On any objective test it is an extremely permissive piece of legislation. The general power of competence will give local authorities autonomy by unlocking accelerated development zones, tax increment financing, asset-backed vehicles and real estate investment trusts."
Mr Jackson also highlighted the economic advantages of decentralisation: "An econometric study in Germany found that Government efficiency increased in direct proportion to decentralisation and could drive it up by up to 10%. That would release in this country the equivalent of £70 billion. The Spanish institute of fiscal studies found that fiscal decentralisation could boost growth in the economy by 0.5%. The Bill speaks to that concern. If Opposition Members ask me whether we are going far enough in fiscal autonomy and decentralisation, the answer is no, but the Bill is a bigger and better start than what went on before."
In his final speech to the House of Commons, David Curry MP warns of very difficult years ahead for local government. Mr Curry was a local government minister in the Major years, responsible for the highly successful City Challenge programme.
5% cuts are coming to local government: "The crunch for local government will come not this year but in 2011-12 and 2012-13, because the comprehensive spending review takes care of the present year. However, if there is a cut in grant of something like 5 per cent., which is not an unreasonable assumption, given the pressures that we are under and the fact that local government is not one of the "safeguarded" services, serious decisions will have to be taken and there will be serious consequences. Recession drives up demand. It drives up demand for free school meals. It drives up demand from self-carers who fall back on welfare because they can no longer finance their care, and it drives up the cost of home-school transport. Those are only three areas in which recession inevitably pushes up costs."
Cuts are coming at a time when local government faces flat revenues: "We must also consider demographic demand-we do not need to go into the familiar argument of what an ageing population means-and the fact that recession leads to income being constrained from things such as tourism, and car parking and planning charges. Many local authorities depend heavily on those charges to maintain a relatively modest council tax, or at least to mitigate its impact. However, the council tax is not a buoyant tax. We have already heard about house building, and a low level of house building means that there is no buoyancy in the council tax. Local government will therefore face a huge problem, even with the best will in the world."
Three factors that are pushing up local government costs: "If one then looks at the longer term, however, and considers the three big factors driving costs, the situation becomes much more difficult. First, there are the consequences of what we might call the baby P issue. Whenever there is one of these ghastly episodes where a child has suffered appalling mistreatment and has died, the impact on the reactions of social services departments is bound to come through, in the sense of them playing safe and not taking risks, and that enhances demand-and rightly so; one understands that. Secondly, there is the demographic time bomb of adult care, plus the special demands of high-dependency cases, which will now impact much more severely. Thirdly, there is the old question of the waste and landfill targets; as they are winched up, the costs for local government get higher and higher."
Public services cannot be safeguarded in this environment: "Those are three huge, emotional, high-volume and high-cost issues. Add that to the recession and we see that local government is facing the perfect storm. We can talk until we are blue in the face about safeguarding public services, but they will not be safeguarded. Nobody can, and nobody will, safeguard them. Some services can be hit harder than others, but even then we have to be careful, because there is no point in saying, "We're going to make a special case of the health service" if the consequence is that social services get particularly badly hit. So many of the outcomes in health depend on effective social services. They have to be treated together. If we dislocate the pair of them, what is gained on the swings will be lost on the roundabout."
Tomorrow we will highlight David Curry's valedictory words on Europe.
The Prime Minister recently insisted "I've been as open as I can, as transparent as I can" and that he has ended the culture of spin. This is of course satirical beyond description. It also chimes like a broken bell with a written answer to a question from Shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary Caroline Spelman:
"To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government if she will place in the Library a copy of the guidance in her Department's staff handbook on the declaration of gifts, hospitality and financial interests.
Mr. Khan: Our staff handbook has been developed as an interactive publication delivered through the Department's intranet. It is not held in a format which allows it to be easily exported and therefore could be provided only at a disproportionate cost."
The handbook could surely be printed off bit by bit and placed in the House of Commons Library. Or they could cut and paste it into a Word document. Or maybe it should have been produced in such a way that it could be "easily exported" - you know, in the interests of transparency and all that.
One for the localists amongst you: there were oral questions on communities and local government yesterday.
Monmouth MP and pugilist David Davies asked about the Government's programme to tackle violent extremism, a topic which Shadow Minister for Communities and Local Government Paul Goodman has also been pursuing.
"David T.C. Davies: When I last raised this issue, I asked the Secretary of State for an assurance that not one penny of Government money was being given to extremists or to violent extremists. She was unable to give me that assurance at the time, but the Department has now had a year to look into the issue. Can we possibly be given an assurance today that not one penny of Government money is being given to extremists, and if not, why not?
Hazel Blears: The hon. Gentleman is correct in saying that he has raised the issue before. I am delighted to be able to tell him about the range of work that has been done in the last 12 months. First, extensive guidance was published for all local authorities in June last year, setting out exactly the criteria on which groups should be funded. We fund groups that stand up to tackle violent extremism and uphold our shared values. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that following a point of order raised by the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), I undertook to place in the Library of the House, by the end of April, full details—they are held in our Government offices—of the projects being funded."
That answer does not inspire confidence.
"Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): As the Secretary of State has answered this question herself, may I first say to her that we believe she had no alternative to the course that she took in suspending relations with the Muslim Council of Britain?
Let me now return to the question. The House will have noted that, for the second time, the Secretary of State was unable to give my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) the guarantee that he seeks that extremists have not got their hands on taxpayers’ money. As I know from correspondence with her, the reason is simple: no system exists to check who receives the cash before it is given. That is frankly scandalous. Can the Secretary of State at least guarantee that when she publishes information on where last year’s Preventing Violent Extremism money went—she has promised to do so—she will publish the details of who received the money, down to the very last penny?
Hazel Blears: The hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that there is no system for checking the allocation of those funds to community groups. There is a system, for local authorities, the police and a range of other organisations, to ensure that the funds are allocated to groups that uphold our shared values and are committed to standing up to tackle extremism.
I have told the hon. Gentleman that this is not a ring-fenced grant, for the very reason that we want the work to be embedded as mainstream work for local authorities, and to draw in funding from other sources to ensure that it can be done in a proper, comprehensive fashion. I have also told him that we will place the information in the Library. We have told local authorities that the grant is not ring-fenced, but because of its exceptionally sensitive nature, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), has written to local authorities saying that we will continue to monitor it extremely carefully. The hon. Gentleman must accept, however, that if we want this work to be embedded as mainstream activity, we must be prepared to make sure we are working in proper, effective partnership with our local authorities."
Something has gone wrong here, and MPs are right to keep pressing until we find out what it is.
Shadow Minister for Communities and Local Government Paul Goodman made a point of order in the House of Commons this afternoon which is well worth a detailed look.
"Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As you are aware, the preventing violent extremism pathfinder fund distributes more than £70 million of public money to local authorities. Last year, after a delay of some six months, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government was persuaded to place in the Library details of how that fund was being spent for that year. Earlier this year, I wrote to the Secretary of State to ask her to place in the Library the corresponding details for this year. I received no reply. After a written question, I received a reply studiously ignoring the request I had made. This morning, I phoned the Secretary of State’s private office and was told that the Department may—I stress “may”—no longer holds these financial details for this year at all.
My point of order is as follows. Either the Department no longer holds the details of where a substantial tranche of £70 million-worth of public money is going, which is a scandal, or it is refusing to place in the Library details of where that money is going, which, frankly, is no less scandalous in relation to information that Members of this House and members of the public have the right to see. What can you do, Mr. Speaker, to assist Members of this House in obtaining access to information that they have a right to know?
Mr. Speaker: It is up to Ministers as to how they answer parliamentary questions. I will look into the matter the hon. Gentleman raises, and I will get back to him. I thank him for raising it.
Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I want to point out my concern, which I hope is shared by the House, that it seems easier to get information from the Government through freedom of information requests, which would work for my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), than through written questions. That is a very worrying development.
Mr. Speaker: It would certainly worry me. When parliamentarians seek information through parliamentary questions that is all-important and they should be a priority for any Minister."
Mr Goodman is right to be concerned. As recent events once again prove, extremism needs to be addressed as an urgent priority. Since 1997 Labour have made a habit of announcing hefty expenditure on all sorts of projects and then closer inspection has shown that all is not as it seemed.
I was due to speak at a debate (which has alas been cancelled) at the Oxford Union tonight, against the motion "This House Would do Anything for Charity". I would have made the obvious but essential point that not all charities are worthwhile, and that some do positive harm. So it is with Treasury expenditure. If large sums of money are indeed being splashed around in the name of preventing extremism, we need to know who is receiving the cash and what they stand for.
I am told that the Conservatives may press this matter further. I hope so, and I will be interested to see what they uncover.
Mr Goodman, Mr Luff and Mr Speaker all made the additional point that ministers should answer written questions properly. Since October I have been trawling through Hansard regularly, and this is certainly another real problem.
It was the second reading of Peter Luff's Small Business Rate Relief (Automatic Payment) Bill on Friday. It is backed by the Federation of Small Businesses and reflects the fact that business rate relief is not taken up by half the smal businesses entitled to it. Around £400 million earmarked for rate relief for small businesses is returned to the Treasury every year.
In 2007 the Welsh Assembly made such payments automatic in Wales. In Scotland businesses with a rateable value below £8,000 have had their rates abolished.
Some 115 MPs have signed Mr Luff's Early Day Motion, number 676, on the subject. He told the House of Commons:
"I sincerely thank the supporters of the Bill and of the campaign, especially the Federation of Small Businesses for taking a lead, suggesting the measure to me and campaigning tirelessly on behalf of all our small businesses. Towards the end of my remarks, I will name some of the many other supporting organisations, to which I am grateful for all their support and advice, especially the Local Government Association. Its unqualified support for the Bill was an important factor in my decision to proceed with it.
I also thank the 115 colleagues from all parties who signed early-day motion 676 on the subject, and the 11 colleagues, again from all parties, many from the Business and Enterprise Committee, who sponsor the measure. I thank the Minister for Local Government and the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), for their help and advice, for agreeing to a private meeting before today’s Second Reading and for at least giving the impression that they sympathised with the Bill’s objectives and might be tempted to support or adapt it, and introduce it with a package of other measures to help small businesses. We will wait and see what the Under-Secretary says in his winding-up speech.
“Research published by the Government shows rates to be an especially heavy burden for small businesses, accounting for a significantly higher proportion of operating profits than in the case of larger businesses.”
I do not pretend that the Bill is a cure-all or a panacea, but I believe that it constitutes a useful and important step forward. Indeed, the Federation of Small Businesses said in a statement that it gave me to read out:
“This cash injection could save many small businesses laying off staff or closing down completely. Our members fully support the call for automatic rate relief, a key theme of our Keep Trade Local campaign.”
The Bill may have shortcomings and I am sure that, if it gets a Committee stage, we can discuss two specific changes in more detail. However, I believe that the Under-Secretary understands that the current position is unacceptable and can be improved. Approximately half of all small businesses currently claim the relief, leaving half not getting money to which they are entitled. The Bill is far from perfect—I do not claim perfection for it—but it would improve the current position and save jobs in the real economy.
A fascinating statistic is that 64 per cent. of all commercial innovations come from small firms. We know that this country needs to innovate to stay ahead in the international competitive race. Small firms will play a key role in helping us do so, but many are in serious trouble. The Federation of Small Businesses has seen a 200 per cent. increase in phone calls to its small business helpline compared with last year. To take one example, small independent retailers seem to be in terminal decline across the UK. The accountancy firm BDO Stoy Hayward forecasts that 33,900 small businesses will close in 2009, which equates to 120 a day. I will not list all the statistics of doom and gloom, but one that particularly worries me, as a Member with a predominantly rural constituency, is that 42 per cent. of English towns and villages no longer have a shop of any kind. We must protect the shops that are still running."
It was questions to Communities and Local Government ministers yesterday.
Shadow London Minister Bob Neill asked a good question about centralised housebuilding targets:
"It is five years this month since the Government’s own Barker review identified the problems that arise from reliance on the section 106 system and its attendant complexities as a means of driving development. Since then, the Government have added to those complications with measures such as the community infrastructure levy. Against that background and the decline in receipts, to which reference has been made, is it not better to move away from that complicated regime and a system of top-down development targets to one of incentivising local communities and local authorities to accept development by allowing them to keep some of the proceeds that arise to their own tax base from encouraging development?
Margaret Beckett: I think that the hon. Gentleman left out an important development: in the meantime the Government have made available some £8 billion of resources for investment in housing. That is twice as much as the amount that was available in the previous period, which was itself substantial. I think that he was probably referring to the proposals, in so far as one can call them that, in the Conservative party’s latest publication of its policies —[Interruption.] I accept that it is a very short read. It is perhaps not entirely well-founded in the statistics that it cites, but I am sure that we will be examining it in future in the House."
Paul Goodman, Shadow Minister for Communities and Local Government, yesterday addressed the issue of Holocaust Memorial Day, which was on 27 January.
"The debate is necessarily sombre, and as the Minister said, each year it is one in which party politics is irrelevant. Each year, we probe the causes of the horror of the holocaust, its roots planted in the racist ideology of the Nazis and, even deeper, in Europe’s terrible history of anti-Semitism. We honour the work of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, the Holocaust Educational Trust, the Community Security Trust, the all-party group against anti-Semitism, many of whose Members are in their places, and many other organisations. We condemn holocaust denial, as the Minister rightly did, as we do all racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia.
We wonder how the holocaust could have happened, and how most Germans could have averted their eyes from the attempted extermination of an entire people in Europe. In 1933, Germany could claim to be the most civilised nation in the world. Less than 15 years later, 6 million people were dead. Before we rush to judgment, however, we ask ourselves each year whether we are certain that we would have behaved more honourably. We always join together in this debate to say, “Never again.”
As the Minister said, the Jewish people were not the only victims of the holocaust. There were also Poles, disabled people, political prisoners, Jehovah’s Witnesses, gay people and many others. Nor, as has been pointed out from the Conservative Benches, was the holocaust the only exercise in mass murder. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust’s website refers to Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur.
Of itself, anti-Semitism is surely no worse than any other form of that vile thing, racism. However, the location of the extermination camps in Europe and the historical backdrop against which they were set place on us a unique responsibility. As politicians, we must be especially sensitive to eruptions of anti-Semitism, given the speed at which it gathered pace in Germany.
It is incontestable that what happens abroad can stir violent extremism at home. However, I wish to make it absolutely clear that violence abroad must not be allowed to spill on to the streets of Britain, from whatever quarter. People must take great care not accidentally to inflame what they rightly decry.
I close with three swift questions to the Under-Secretary, who, as ever, made a good speech today. First, will he give the House a categorical assurance that all police forces will record anti-Semitic crimes by the end of 2008-89, as promised Secondly, what is the Government’s view of reports that the Muslim Council of Britain boycotted Holocaust memorial day this year? If they are true, will the Government’s engagement policy in relation to the MCB change? If so, in what way? Thirdly, Ministers rightly met groups concerned about the conflict in Gaza and Israel recently. What steps is the Under-Secretary taking to ensure not only that Ministers meet groups, but that groups from different religious backgrounds and from none can meet each other in such circumstances—obviously, I am referring not only to Gaza and Israel—to help reduce tensions?"
The Conservatives' new Communities and Local Government team debuted at oral questions yesterday.
Returning to a role she has occupied before, Shadow Secretary Caroline Spelman asked a question about business rates:
"I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), for his warm welcome, and may I say to colleagues how nice it is to be back? Business rates are set to rise by 5 per cent. in April, taking the average bill to £12,000 a year, yet today we heard that inflation has already fallen to 3.1 per cent., and the Government’s pre-Budget report predicts deflation, with the retail prices index inflation plummeting to minus 2.25 per cent. this year. How can the Secretary of State justify an inflation-busting business rate at a time when so many businesses are fighting for their very survival?
Hazel Blears: I welcome the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) to their posts. It is nice to see so many women on the Front Bench. I thoroughly enjoyed debating these issues with the hon. Lady’s predecessor—I cannot for the life of me think why, but I did—and I have no doubt that we will enjoy such exchanges, too.
The hon. Lady may have been away from her current brief for some time, but the non-domestic rates system has not changed. It has always been tied to the assessment of inflation at a particular time in the cycle. She knows that it is essential to try to maximise the take from non-domestic rates, as I said to the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy), in order to maintain the vital services that local government has to deliver to the communities out there. We all recognise that businesses and individuals are currently hard pressed, and we are doing everything that we can, including raising the reliefs on empty property taxes. The position on that has changed as a result of this Government’s decision since the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) previously had her current brief. We are flexible and willing to take whatever steps are necessary to help people through these times, which, as I have said, stands in marked contrast to the policy of the Opposition to do nothing.
Mrs. Spelman: I am sure that the right hon. Lady would agree with me, however, that one of the saddest features of this recession is the increase in the number of empty premises on the high street. Will she therefore confirm that, even with the tiny relief in the pre-Budget report, the new empty property business rates are still set to raise £700 million this year? Does she accept that that additional tax could well make the difference between a business getting by and a business going to the wall?
Hazel Blears: I am sure that the hon. Lady is aware that empty property in this country has been subject to taxes for 40 years or so. We are not talking about a new innovation. In fact, the extra reliefs that have been introduced as a result of the pre-Budget report will give relief amounting to £205 million to businesses that would otherwise have to pay those taxes. That is not an inconsiderable sum and is a result of a decision made by this Government. She talks about inflation, but she will know that local authorities had to cope with the spike in fuel and energy prices. Although inflation is now coming down, they have had to cope with real volatility in the system. Therefore, it is important that business rates make their proper contribution to local services. Again, we are bringing forward a raft of measures, ranging from skills support, training and help for apprentices to support for small businesses, the enterprise guarantee system and the working capital system. Those are all innovative steps taken by this Government in the teeth of opposition from the Conservatives, who simply want to stand on the sidelines, wring their hands and do nothing to help people through this difficult period."
Last November he claimed that the Government was hiding from pubs the fact that they could be entitled to a cut in business rates due to the smoking ban. The story appeared in the Telegraph on 9 November:
"Publicans who applied for a reduction in the rateable value of their premises after the ban was introduced in 2007 were turned down on the grounds there had been no material change in the way the pub was used.
But the Valuation Office Agency has received legal advice saying that decision was wrong.
New guidance states valuers should take the loss of the right for customers to smoke into account when assessing the rateable value of a pub, which could save landlords thousands of pounds a year.
The Conservatives have accused the Government of failing to notify publicans about the new guidance.
Shadow communities secretary Eric Pickles said that a £5,000 reduction in the rateable value of their business could save publicans £2,200 a year, at a time when the British Beer and Pub Association estimates that pubs are closing at the rate of 27 a week."
Mr Pickles had uncovered the story through a written parliamentary question:
"Mr. Pickles: To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he will place in the Library a copy of the Valuation Office Agency’s non-domestic rating guidance, RAT IA, as amended to include advice on the smoking ban. 
Mr. Timms: A copy of the Valuation Office Agency’s Rating Instruction and Advice reference 260106, which was updated to include advice on the Smoking Ban in June 2008, has been placed in the Library."
The document is available here.
Mr Pickles has recently been informed, through another written answer, that the Government has written to write to trade associations to inform them of the reduction:
"Mr. Pickles: To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government with reference to the answer of 28 October 2008, Official Report, columns 887-88W, on non-domestic rates: valuation, what steps (a) her Department and (b) the Valuation Office Agency has taken to raise awareness amongst the licensees of licensed premises of the change of policy on material changes of circumstances arising from the prohibition of smoking on licensed premises. 
John Healey: On 11 November 2008 I personally wrote to the main trade associations representing public house operators and occupiers to help ensure that their members are clear about the change in approach to the rating assessments for pubs following the introduction of the smoking ban."
So the Government acted two days after the Conservatives lined up a news story drawing attention to their ineptitude (although the minister should have written to all landlords, not just trade associations). Once again Mr Pickles, who has absolutely first class research support at Conservative Campaign Headquarters, has proved himself to be an outstanding operative.
Lord Renton of Mount Harry used to be MP for Mid-Sussex, and is a former Chief Whip and Minister for the Arts. Now in the House of Lords, he asked the Government yesterday what it is doing to improve relations with the Muslim community:
"The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews): My Lords, our community relations approach, as set out in our community empowerment White Paper, aims to give control and influence to local people and covers all faith communities. We have continuing good relations with all faiths, as highlighted
in our interfaith strategy in July this year, including the Muslim community, with whom we work bilaterally, and through the Faith Communities Consultative Council.
Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Does she agree that, following, and against the background of, the tragic events in Mumbai, this is a particularly appropriate and necessary moment to strive to find wise and sympathetic relations with the Muslim communities in our country? Does she recollect that in July the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Hazel Blears, mentioned that there was a proposal for young Muslims to be taught citizenship in school so that they could see that there was no necessary conflict between Islam and British life? That is a difficult task, but has the process started and is it succeeding?
Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I start by saying that our sympathy goes out to all the innocent victims of that indiscriminate terror attack in Mumbai. We monitor the effect of such events on our communities in this country, and it is worth telling the House that the Secretary of State has today called together a parliamentary round table, the aim of which is to meet parliamentarians to update them on the situation and to get their understanding of their communities. However, so far nothing significant has been reported in our communities by way of a response.
The noble Lord used some very positive and encouraging words, such as “wise and sympathetic”. That is exactly what we try to do in our work to promote cohesion and prevent extremism by building up the resilience of the local communities. Young people are critical in that. It is encouraging that an increasing number of mosques are choosing to teach citizenship, and of course young Muslims in our schools continually have the opportunity to access the citizenship curriculum, so it is a very positive movement."
One thought: although the practice is widespread, does it make sense and is it helpful to talk about "the Muslim community", "the gay community" or "the business community" etc.?
Certainly the word "community" can be applied to people who don't share a geographical location. But are we sometimes clumsy in assuming that people who share a given characteristic have a great deal in common? Do we sometimes risk seeing people as no more than a member of a "community"? Are there communities out there whose very existence we ignore?
And on the specific issue of the Government's relations with Muslim people, what more do you think they could usefully do?
Update: Baroness Warsi, Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion and Social Action, asked a follow-up question:
"Baroness Warsi: My Lords, can the Minister confirm that British Muslim communities are part of the general communities which make up Britain? If that is so, can she explain why the British Muslim engagement unit is based in the Foreign Office?
Baroness Andrews: My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely right that, of course, they are part of our national community. I hope that, increasingly, our work together will strengthen those communities and help them to become productive and resilient. I do not know much about the work of the unit, but I shall find out. I presume it is in the Foreign Office because it engages with Muslim communities abroad. That would seem to be logical."
In a subsequent press release, Baroness Warsi said:
"It is clear that this Government does not understand that British Muslims are part of British communities, and should not be engaged with under the auspices of the Foreign Office. Yet again we see this Government treating minority groups as separate interest groups rather than as part of Britain."
Sadiq Khan is Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Department for Communities and Local Government. During oral questions yesterday, he made an unfair attack on James Paice, Shadow Minister for Agriculture.
"Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): Does the Minister agree that the rules and laws of this country should apply to everybody equally? If so, does he understand how my constituents in the villages of Wilburton and Haddenham feel at the prospect of another 14 Traveller pitches being granted permission? That permission is being granted not because those sites are wanted there and not because the district council wants them, but because the council is being forced to grant permission on land for which it would not otherwise do so, because of pressure from the Government and from the regional planning policy. One of the two sites has already been rejected for use in building conventional housing. The other is a greenfield site. If anybody else applied to carry out normal development, they would not have a prayer.
Mr. Khan: Gypsies and Travellers are bound by the same planning laws and human rights legislation as everyone else, which means that they should apply for planning permission before moving on to or developing land that they own. In the same way as everyone else, they are subject to enforcement action if the proper planning processes are not complied with. Local authorities, rather than the Government, should decide what happens in local communities."
Mr Paice's question did not betray a prejudice against Gypsy and Traveller sites. He did not indicate a blanket opposition to them, but was talking about the prospect of an additional fourteen pitches. He did assert that planning permission was being granted in unique circumstances, but he backed up his assertion with evidence - i.e. that one of the two sites has been rejected for conventional use.
The minister was entitled to rebut that claim, and to question Mr Paice's assertion that this is an unpopular decision. But accusing him of being prejudiced against Gypsy and Traveller sites was inelegant and unfair. The Speaker was right to rule the minister's remarks in order - but they were bang out of order in a non-Parliamentary sense.
The Opposition and individual MPs (Mr Paice was raising this matter on behalf of his constituents) must be able to raise difficult matters without the Government resorting to insupportable accusations of bigotry. Not being prejudiced against Gypsies or Travellers does not necessitate supporting every planning application for a site. It is also perfectly reasonable to be concerned about the number of sites in a given area.
Nor is it implausible that certain interest groups might be given an unfair advantage on certain occasions. Mr Khan was entitled to dispute Mr Paice's assertion that this has happened in Cambridgeshire. The minister was quite wrong to respond as he did.
He owes Mr Paice an apology. Seeing as the offence took place in the chamber, that is where he should make amends.
Kettering MP Philip Hollobone was elected in 2005. Curiously, he is also a Kettering Borough Councillor. Yesterday during oral questions on Communities and Local Government, he posed the following question:
"Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): If she will hold discussions with Treasury Ministers to ensure that revenue from the local authority housing revenue account is directed to social housing. 
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): The current review of council housing finance is a joint review between my Department and the Treasury. It includes a thorough exploration of the housing revenue account—HRA—subsidy system. DCLG and Treasury Ministers regularly discuss the progress of the review.
Mr. Hollobone: Council tenants in the borough of Kettering pay £12 million a year in council rent, £3 million of which goes into the Treasury coffers and is not reinvested in council housing in Kettering. Why should council tenants in my constituency pay £1 in extra stealth tax for every £4 they pay in council rent?
Mr. Wright: I know that the hon. Gentleman and his constituents are concerned about this, and the Government recognise that the current system can be unpopular and perceived as unfair. That is precisely why we undertook the review of council house financing. The review of the HRA subsidy system will look at how local authority housing is financed. It will cover such issues as the recycling of rental income subsidies and the concept of negative subsidy, and I hope that that will address the concerns of the hon. Gentleman and his constituents."
Mr Hollobone raises an important point. Should there be more or less ringfencing in taxation?
Paul Goodman MP: "Further to the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) about the placing of documents relating to the Prime Minister’s “preventing violent extremism” programme in the Library, the Leader of the House should know that the Prime Minister made a commitment to put the relevant documents in the Library as long ago as 14 November, and on 21 November the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government wrote to me saying that they would be put in the Library “shortly”. However, the Secretary of State’s office has now told my office that there is no timetable for their delivery. Although the programme is important and worth while, Members will rightly wish to scrutinise the details of where the money is going. Will the Leader of the House please ensure that the problem is cleared up as a matter of urgency?"
Harriet Harman, Leader of the Commons: "The hon. Gentleman can ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government about that next Tuesday, but he has made a serious point. I will look into it, and ensure that the Secretary of State writes to him and to the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) before next Tuesday."
ConservativeHome's view: "This is a serious matter. The Prime Minister promised David Cameron that the Opposition would be able to see the documents behind its £6m 'Preventing Violent Extremism" programme. The programme aims to help prevent young Muslims being exploited by violent extremists and it is right that the Tories have an opportunity to scrutinise how this is being done."