Page last updated at 12:05 GMT, Thursday, 26 November 2009

Tory Muslim school row 'irresponsible', says Ed Balls

Ed Balls: "If you are going to make the allegations, you need to get your facts right"

Tory claims that schools with links to a radical Islamic group received money from an anti-extremism fund are false and "irresponsible", says Ed Balls.

The schools secretary said the cash was from a nursery fund, which local authorities say has the same name.

Tory leader David Cameron urged Gordon Brown to "get a grip" on the issue in the Commons on Wednesday.

The group Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is a legal organisation in the UK, accused the Tories of "bare-faced lies".

The Tories had raised parliamentary questions and wrote to Ed Balls last week about newspaper allegations concerning two schools in Slough and Haringey.

'Extremism' claims

At prime minister's questions, Mr Cameron said the schools had been established by "an extremist Islamist foundation" which he said was a "front" for Hizb ut-Tahrir.

He said the schools had secured £113,000 of government money and claimed some came from the Pathfinder scheme, whose objective was meant to be preventing violent extremism.

But the local authorities say the Pathfinder fund in question was one for helping parents find nursery places for their children.

Among other Conservative allegations were that the school in Haringey appeared not to have been inspected by Ofsted or registered as an independent school.

Our school is being used as part of a wider political agenda and this type of vilification of the Muslim community needs to stop
Farah Ahmed
Head teacher

But the government says both were registered and Ofsted had inspected them in 2007, after allegations had first surfaced, and reported "no evidence has been found to support allegations that the schools are teaching anti-Semitic or anti-Western values".

Haringey Council also launched an investigation into claims about the school in its area on 26 October and funding had been suspended pending the outcome.

But a spokesman said "no evidence was found to suggest inappropriate content or influence in the school".

'Irrelevant question'

The head teacher of the school in Slough, Farah Ahmed, told the BBC she was not a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir although would not confirm she had never been a member, saying it was an "irrelevant question".

She said: "Our school is being used as part of a wider political agenda and this type of vilification of the Muslim community needs to stop."

Tory aides have agreed some of their information had been inaccurate but the party said its main claim that the schools received some public money had been vindicated.

David Cameron: "Two schools have been established by an extremist Islamist foundation"

Shadow communities minister Paul Goodman accused Mr Balls of "throwing up chaff" and stuck by the claim that the charity that ran the schools was linked to Hizb ut-Tahrir.

He told BBC Two's Newsnight: "We know perfectly well that the person who headed up this charity has spoken on Hizb ut-Tahrir platforms and her husband is the main media operator for Hizb ut-Tahrir in the UK."

The main point was, he said, that "a charity controlled by an extremist organisation has been funded by Ed Balls's department".

'Legal test'

In 2005 the then prime minister Tony Blair said he would ban Hizb ut-Tahrir but two Home Office reviews concluded there was insufficient evidence to do so.

The Conservatives have said they will ban the organisation if they win power.

In a letter to David Cameron, the prime minister said the decision to ban a group "must be based on evidence that the group has broken the law" - and Hizb ut-Tahrir had not met that "legal test" under the Terrorism Act 2000.

Mr Balls told Newsnight he agreed it was a "bad organisation" but said the BNP was as well, and it had also had teachers in schools.

'Divisive allegation'

He said there was "no evidence" extremism had been promoted in the two schools and said the public money that had been given to them "was for the care of three and four-year-old nursery care".

Mr Balls said the way Mr Cameron raised the issue in the Commons "based on a whole series of facts which are false is, I think, deeply irresponsible".

He said: "The issue here is that a very divisive allegation was made about two schools which splits communities, which divides our country, on the basis of false allegations.

Hizb ut-Tahrir denies links to terrorism and says it opposes violence, but campaigns for an Islamic state across the Middle East.

In a statement it accused Mr Cameron of "baseless allegations" and said it never accepted funding from government.

Spokesman Taji Mustafa said it was a political party that did not run schools, adding: "David Cameron's bare-faced lies that Hizb ut-Tahrir runs schools, receives government funding and promotes hatred and violence are another desperate attempt to boost Conservative poll ratings."

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