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Is it ever right to restrict the activities of an All-Party Parliamentary Group?

by Paul Goodman

That, in effect, is the question being put to Parliament by Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow.  Last week, I reported Halfon's Commons exchanges with Sir George Young, the Leader of the Commons, about Engage - the proposed secretariat to an All-Party Group on Islamophobia.  Sir George told Halfon that he'd have a chance to raise the matter during yesterday evening's debate on All-Party Groups, which the latter duly did.

Or rather, attempted to, because there was a Parliamentary dance about whether the subject was wide of the motion being discussed.  However, Halfon and others had a chance to make some points.  The essence of his case was that Engage is -

"...an extremist group that seeks to influence Government and discredit moderate Muslims. It has been appointed secretariat to the new APPG for Islamophobia. It defends mosques that host terrorist preachers, schools that teach anti-Semitism and homophobia, individuals such as Daud Abdullah who have pressed for terrorist attacks on the British Navy, and the invitation of hate preachers to Britain. When those revelations emerged, the elected chair of the APPG, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins), and the vice-chair Lord Janner, stood down in protest"

- and therefore unsuitable to act as a secretariat.  Peter Bottomley, who intervened on Halfon twice, didn't agree with him -

"I am sorry to trouble my hon. Friend, but perhaps I can give him notice that I will make a passing comment on that matter if you call me to speak later in the debate, Mr Deputy Speaker. There may be more than one side to this."

Neither did Simon Hughes -

"To follow up on what the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) said, I am sure that the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) has done his research and understands that I remain an officer of that group. I will therefore seek to catch your eye, Mr Deputy Speaker, because it is important that the latter's comments, which are his opinion, are not necessarily regarded as factually and objectively accurate. I am very happy to engage in the debate, but there are certainly at least two sides to the story, if not more."

However, Denis MacShane took Halfon's part -

"I think it is appropriate for this matter to be discussed in the debate, because it is a great worry to many people that an organisation with a very clear ideological purpose should be seeking to infiltrate the House of Commons and act as a secretariat. My Muslim constituents are worried about that. I do not know Mrs Bunglawala, but I have certainly heard Mr Bunglawala say at a meeting that he cannot condemn the lapidation-stoning to death-of women, because thus it is written in the Koran. He is entitled to that point of view, but I do not think it should be propagated. As the Prime Minister rightly says, and as I have been saying for some time, we have to keep ultra-Islamist ideologues out of our campuses and keep them from poisoning young minds. If there is even a hint of suspicion-and there is more than that-that it is now the secretariat of an all-party group, it is quite appropriate for the matter to be raised tonight."

Stephen Pound, to whom the matter was evidently new, suggested a separate debate -

"I am listening with great interest and, I have to say, with very little knowledge of the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman describes. The subject to which he is speaking seems so important that I ask him whether it would not be more appropriately addressed in a full and separate debate of the House rather than in the context of the motions before us."

While John Mann asked whether it's ever right for a secretariat to choose MPs, rather than the other way round -

"Is not one of the key issues that the hon. Gentleman highlights the dilemma of whether a group of Members of Parliament, as an APPG, appoints a secretariat, and the danger that, in some instances, a secretariat-particularly a professional one-can essentially scout around for Members of Parliament to create the all-party group that the secretariat wishes to run? Should not Members of Parliament appoint a secretariat, not the other way around?"

As I wrote last week, I can't remember an occasion when an all-party group - usually the most uncontroversial of vehicles - has caused such contension and division.  My view on Engage has previously been set out on this site.


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