Backbench Business - Voluntary Sector: Faith Organisationsbackbench Business

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 5th May 2016.

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Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Labour, East Ham 11:30 am, 5th May 2016

I start by congratulating Fiona Bruce on securing this debate. She has certainly kept the Backbench Business Committee busy in recent weeks and to great effect, not least on this occasion. I agree with everything she said, including her apposite criticism of the Government’s dreadful proposal to in effect turn Ofsted into a state regulator of religion. I hope that her criticisms will be heeded by the Minister and that the proposal will be abandoned in due course.

I hope that this debate will achieve two things. First, I hope it will draw attention to the extraordinary scale and importance of the contributions made by faith-based organisations to communities up and down the country. The hon. Lady set out well the breadth of what is being done. Secondly, I hope that the debate will allow us to consider a specific proposal made by the all-party parliamentary group for faith and society, which I chair, to ease the constraints that currently hold back faith-based organisations when they seek to work with both national and local government. I will set out that proposal and I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to it.

There is undoubtedly a new movement of faith-based social activism in Britain today. Its significance has not yet been fully understood or acknowledged, but at a time when some people argue that religious faith is on the way out, there is no doubt that the movement is making a growing and immensely positive contribution to our society. The movement is one of the most hopeful developments around.

I chaired the advisory group for a report by the think-tank Demos called “Exploring the role of faith in British society and politics…”. It was published in 2013 and is available on the Demos website. The researchers analysed the UK findings of the European Values Study, a regular, highly regarded pan-European survey, and found that about one in eight people in Britain say when asked, “I belong to a religious organisation.” Demos cross-tabulated that with participation in volunteering, and the analysis showed that people who say that they belong to a religious organisation are far more likely to volunteer than others. More than that, it showed that for quite a number of the types of volunteering examined, including volunteering for a trade union, on local community action, on women’s issues, on international development and on human rights, the one in eight who belong to a religious organisation account for a larger number of volunteers than the entire seven in eight who do not. That tells us something important and surprising—perhaps even rather unsettling for some—about where the capacity to change things for the better can be found in modern Britain.

The most striking example, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Congleton, has been the food bank phenomenon. If we had speculated 10 years ago about what would happen if tens of thousands of people were suddenly, following changes of Government policy, unable to afford enough food for themselves and their families, I certainly would not have predicted that the faith groups would have been the ones to step up to meet the need. That, however, is what has happened. The 400-plus food banks organised by the Trussell Trust have provided food for more than half a million households in the past year, giving, on average, just over two lots of three-day emergency food supplies to each of them. Every one of those food banks is based on a Church. Islamic Relief has organised in a number of areas in the mosques to collect food in support of those food banks, too. It has turned out that in 21st century Britain it has been the Churches, uniquely, that have had both the motivation to tackle this problem, which has erupted so quickly, and, perhaps more surprisingly, the capacity and the resources to take it on. Nobody else has been able to do that, but the faith groups have. That again tells us something very important about the realities in Britain today and where the potential for changing things for the better resides.

One striking example of this new movement of faith-based social activism, and a very distinctive element in the voluntary sector we are reflecting on in this debate, is London Citizens. It is made up of churches, mosques, a synagogue, schools, trade union branches and community organisations, and it campaigns on issues that the members collectively agree are pressing in their community. For example, it has campaigned in favour of a living wage at a higher level than the statutory minimum wage, with the aim of making life easier for the lowest-paid workers. That specific initiative taken by London Citizens lies behind the Government’s national living wage initiative. Its campaigning, of which that is an example, has had a remarkable impact, and there is no doubt that the faith commitment of the Muslims, the Christians and others of faith involved in London Citizens has been key in its work. Last week, it gathered 6,000 people at the Copper Box on the Olympic park for its accountability assembly with the two main candidates for today’s elections for London Mayor.

Four years ago, we established, in the House, the all-party group on faith and society, which I chair. Its role is to support faith-based organisations in the contributions they are making to serve their communities, helping to make their contributions better understood and, where we can, to remove some of the barriers that hold them back. The secretariat of the all-party group is provided by FaithAction, which has a pioneering contract with the Department of Health, and I commend the leadership the Department has provided in acknowledging and supporting the contribution of faith-based organisations. That contract is to enable FaithAction to support faith-based health initiatives. Following its establishment, the all-party group held a series of meetings with representatives of faith-based organisations. We held one for organisations contributing to welfare to work; one on health and well-being; one on work with young people, recognising that most youth work in Britain today is undertaken by faith groups, as the hon Lady mentioned; and one on international aid and development.

The organisations we met included: the Sikh Nishkam Centre in Birmingham, where we discussed its work to support unemployed people into jobs; the Muslim-led Faith Regen Foundation, where we discussed its contribution to the Government’s Work programme; the Spear programme, based at St Paul’s church in Hammersmith, which is literally transforming the life chances of unemployed young people; the LifeLine Institute’s alternative school, run by the LifeLine church in Dagenham; the Faith, Relationships & Young People project, based in my borough of Newham; the Jewish Lads’ and Girls’ Brigade; the Hindu-led, Peepal Care; the Parish Nursing initiative; and Jewish Care, which provides outstanding residential care. Of the organisations that are focused overseas, we met Hindu-led Sewa International, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Sikh-led KhalsaAid and Muslim Aid. After those discussions and meetings, we reflected on what all the groups had said to us. A theme that emerged was that many organisations experienced a little bit of difficulty with their local authority—not so much with the members, or councillors, but with the officers.

Council officers frequently find it quite difficult to deal with faith. They are nervous that, if they deal with one faith group, they will find themselves, in fairness, having to deal with all the others, and who knows what that might amount to. They are a bit uneasy anyway that the people involved in these groups may be a little bit out of the ordinary. It just feels to them like quite dangerous territory, which it is probably easier to avoid altogether. Frankly, life would be much simpler if it were not necessary to deal with faith groups at all.

More substantially, local authorities are nervous that if they were to commission services from faith groups, one of two things would be likely to go wrong—either that public funds would be used to try to convert people rather than to deliver the service, or that there would be bias in delivering the service in favour of members of that faith group. The evidence—in so far as there is evidence—is that neither of those things happens in practice. The Demos report touches on that. In its conclusion, it says:

“We found little evidence to confirm critics’
fears about faith group service providers: that their main motivation is proselytising, they are exclusivist and they discriminate. Rather, faithful providers”— that is the term that Demos uses for them—

“are highly motivated and effective, and often serve as the permanent and persistent pillars of community. Faith appears to be an effective motivator for community service providers, akin to the notion of a public sector ethos.”

That positive affirmation for those groups is correct, but, of course, it is not inconceivable that one of those concerns felt by local authority officers might, in a particular case, turn out to be well-founded. It is not inconceivable that one of those problems could arise.

The all-party group on faith and society decided to develop what we call a covenant—it was actually the suggestion of my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy—in the hope of building trust on both sides, between local councils on the one side and the faith-based organisations in their area on the other. The text of that covenant is on the website of the all-party group. Let me read the preamble to the covenant, because it explains what our intention is.

“The coming decade will see the country facing new social needs and tough new challenges. There will be fresh demands on public health, social care, education, employment support and community inclusion. These challenges will require the identification of a new set of resources. We will need to unlock the potential of every part of our society to contribute towards solutions. We believe that one important resource can be realised by supporting faith-based organisations to work with local authorities constructively and effectively, as part of civil society. That will mean ensuring that local authorities are confident in commissioning services from, and transferring assets to, appropriately qualified faith-based organisations, and that they include faith groups when they look for solutions to social needs.

The APPG on Faith and Society is convinced that faith groups have a great deal to offer as providers and advocates for the communities in which they serve, and that some of their potential is being unnecessarily overlooked at present. To help tackle the problem, the Group has drafted a Covenant which can be adopted by faith groups and local authorities in cities across the UK. Together, local authorities and faith communities should work out a local version of the commitments below, according to the priorities and needs of that locality. The Covenant is a joint commitment between faith communities and local authorities to a set of principles that guide engagement, aiming to remove some of the mistrust that exists and to promote open, practical working on all levels.”