Michael Gove has denied being at war with Theresa May over the best way to tackle extremism, saying the home secretary is “doing a fantastic job”.
Asked if he he thought she was was too soft on Islamic fundamentalism, he said: “No, absolutely not.” Mrs May has accused the education secretary of not tackling an alleged Islamist plot in Birmingham schools.
One of the schools has now been accused by Ofsted of doing too little protect students from extremist views. The BBC has obtained a copy of the full Ofsted report for Golden Hillock School, which is run by Park View Educational Trust.
It said the school's management was “not doing enough to mitigate against cultural isolation” and this “could leave students vulnerable to the risk of marginalisation from wider British society and the associated risks which could include radicalisation”.
In a letter to Mr Gove, dated 3 June, Home Secretary Mrs May said: “The allegations relating to schools in Birmingham raise serious questions about the quality of school governance and oversight arrangements.”
She added: “Is it true that Birmingham City Council was warned about these allegations in 2008? Is it true that the Department for Education was warned in 2010? If so, why did nobody act?”
Figures close to both ministers briefed the media after the Times newspaper reported clashes between the pair. A Home Office source said: “The Department for Education is responsible for schools, the Home Office is not.
“They have got a problem and they are trying to make it someone else's problem.” Mr Gove's aides said he had long believed Whitehall did not do enough to confront extremism before it developed into terrorism – and his criticism did not relate specifically to the current home secretary.
David Cameron stepped into the row on Wednesday, asking for a full account of the row between the two ministers to “establish the facts”. Justice Secretary Chris Grayling sought to play down the row, telling BBC Radio 4's Today programme there were always “tensions and debates” about policies in government but “I simply do not buy the argument that there are massive divides on this across Whitehall”.
Asked about a suggestion that wearing the Hijab could be restricted in schools as part of a crackdown on extremism, he said he had not heard any discussions about the issue in government.
Mrs May appeared to suggest, in her letter to Mr Gove, that the education secretary wanted to include restrictions on the wearing of headscarves by Muslim girls in a voluntary code of conduct aimed at combating extremism in schools.
The letter says: “We know that extremists try to impose specific forms of dress on people and this includes the mandatory veiling of women. “The consultation document should be clear that nobody should be forced to dress in a particular way.
“We do, however, need to recognise that many moderate Muslims, as well as people of other religions, believe that covering one's hair is a religious requirement and some parents will therefore want their children to do so. “The text on dress requirements should therefore not be part of the extremism definition but, consistent with the Government's already-stated position on the burka, we should state clearly that nobody should be forced to dress in a particular way.”
Labour MP Hazel Blears, a member of Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee who had responsibility for the “Prevent” anti-extremism strategy as a minister, said she was “very concerned” that the government appeared to have scaled back efforts to counter the appeal of militant messages to young Muslims.
“This whole issue is too important to be reduced to a kind of ministerial spat or argument,” she told BBC Radio 4's Today programme. She added: “The Communities department has completely abandoned this agenda and it is left now to the Home Office and a particular police approach.
“They do great work, but the work that needs to be done is at local level, working with local authorities, with education, with the prison service. This should be an all-out government effort.” Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg refused to be drawn into commenting on the row between Mrs May and Mr Gove.
Asked on his weekly LBC radio phone-in how badly the two ministers dislike one another, he said: “Ask them… I don't know.” But he appeared to disagree with Mr Gove's views on tackling extremism.
He said it was not possible for politicians to say, from an office in Whitehall, that “that they are going to put an end to an ideology that they don't like”, adding that it was “communities themselves who are the best antidotes to extremists in those communities”.