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National Muslim Women’s Advisory Group

Volume 704: debated on Monday 27 October 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What advice they have received from the National Muslim Women’s Advisory Group since it was established in November 2007.

My Lords, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government formally launched the National Muslim Women’s Advisory Group in January 2008. This is an independent, informal group to advise the Department for Communities and Local Government on issues to empower Muslim women and increase their participation in civic, economic and social life. The group also contributes to cross-government work on issues affecting Muslim women.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box and thank him for his reply. Can he confirm that the National Muslim Women’s Advisory Group met in May this year and identified three areas of work that it would take forward; can he explain what initiatives, if any, have been identified to do so; and can he further explain what evaluation process is in place, if any, to assess the effectiveness of any initiatives?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her kind remarks about my presence here. Since its establishment in January, the National Muslim Women’s Advisory Group has contributed to a number of areas of government policy, such as the preventing violent extremism agenda, and to a number of cross-government support groups. It is embarking on three projects: one to improve the media presence of Muslim women and to address the stereotypical views that have been portrayed by many; one on capacity-building and leadership in civic establishments; and one to ensure that Muslim women are represented across the board and have leadership skills. The projects have not yet been funded, although funding is earmarked. Once that has been put into place, an evaluation process will be established.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the establishment of various Muslim women’s advisory groups in recent years has been one of the mechanisms that have enabled Muslim women to make a significant contribution to developing community cohesion and to society generally?

My Lords, I agree. Muslim women’s advisory groups have contributed immensely over the years to a number of government areas. Muslim women play a key role in helping to address alienation and disfranchisement among families and young people, and have a pivotal role particularly in community cohesion. That is why we support the development and engagement of women both nationally and locally as active leaders and advocates. Muslim women in particular face a number of barriers to being actively involved, including low unemployment, low skills and stereotypical negative views, and we are working with them to overcome many of those barriers.

My Lords, I, too, welcome the Minister in his debut role. He set out what the National Muslim Women’s Advisory Group was set up for, but he has omitted to mention that a vital part of its work is to prevent violent extremism. Of the 19 women in the group, only three have any background in dealing with extremism, and there is no political scientist or researcher on extremism among them. He emphasises the group’s economic and social role, but what kind of advice does he expect to get from people who are clearly not expert in the area with which the group was set up to deal?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her kind remarks. This is an advisory group of 19 women who are very talented and have a great breadth of experience in the media, in journalism and in academic life, but particularly in working with communities on social action. I understand the point about tackling violent extremism. We do not expect only this group of women to address a very complex set of issues. We have hundreds of projects involving women at a local and regional level that also contribute. I accept that only some of the group have experience in this area of work, but their contribution to civic leadership and knowledge and to community work is just as important.

My Lords, in the financial year 2007-08, the Department for Communities and Local Government invested in a leadership programme that funded 24 projects. I am pleased to say that more than 120 Muslim women and young people have benefited from that work. It is a very successful programme, and it has been greatly welcomed by the people and the communities involved.

My Lords, it is important, is it not, that members of ethnic minorities should relate to the police forces up and down the country, especially when one is talking about extremist activities, but for other reasons as well. How many ethnic minority women have joined the police service?

My Lords, I cannot give the exact figures, but I imagine that not enough ethnic minority women are in police forces across the country. We certainly need to do a huge amount more with police forces and the community to build trust and confidence. The whole point of the DCLG programme is to build that trust and confidence, which will enable some of those women to say, “Yes, I will join the police force”.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the creation of such groups is actually dividing communities and is patronising because it says to Muslim women, “You can engage with us only as Muslim women and not as individuals”?

My Lords, I must disagree with the noble Baroness. If it is suggested that by focusing on Muslim women we are somehow patronising them or creating divisions that were not previously there, I disagree completely. It is through working with the community that one has a chance to address the disproportionately high risks of unemployment, low educational attainment and poor health. These lead to disenfranchisement and alienation, particularly among Muslim women who do not have the opportunity to address these issues. We cannot address them unless we engage with Muslim women, just as we do with a wide range of faith groups on many issues.

My Lords, is it not crucial that we engage groups such as this because there are real difficulties in getting ethnic minority women into certain organisations? I speak particularly as someone who served on the inquiry into organ donation, which highlighted the need for women who understand their communities to be able to persuade other women to accept the health provisions available that will help them to better health.

My Lords, I could not agree more with the noble Baroness. Last summer I was privileged enough to visit 12 local authorities where I saw around 800 people and met some remarkable women who are not engaged in some of our policy areas, but need to be. The extent of their knowledge and commitment was notable. Projects like this help us to move in that direction.