My Lords, if every debate in the House of Lords were conducted with one-minute speeches, we would achieve an enormous amount. This has been a most gracious debate. At the beginning the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, asked if there was any way in which the debate could be conveyed to Her Majesty. The Palace has already been alerted to it and we will see that a report goes back through the proper channels.
I am very honoured to reply on behalf of the Government. Like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, not only for initiating the debate but for being a distinguished scholar and spiritual leader, and a globally respected ambassador for the Jewish community. He has done as much as anyone alive to focus our attention on the challenges of community in the global environment and to introduce us as a nation to the principles of respectful co-existence. For that we honour him.
I will first echo his remarks about the Queen's role in welcoming minority faith communities to our country. Her Majesty was the first monarch to enter a British mosque, Hindu temple and Sikh gurdwara. The reception for representatives of nine different faiths held for her Golden Jubilee 10 years ago demonstrated their affection for her. Comments today from noble Lords confirmed it. The affection is clearly shared across the Commonwealth by people of all faiths who have seen at first hand Her Majesty's genuine respect for and interest in their religions, while recognising that of course she is not only the head of state but head of the established church.
In 1952 when the Queen ascended the throne, Christianity in Britain was not only the predominant but in many areas the only visible religion. It underpinned the standards and morals of society. Since then we have received into our midst practising Muslims from the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East, Pentecostal Christians from Africa and the Caribbean, Hindus and Sikhs from India and east Africa, Catholic and Orthodox Christians from eastern Europe and many more from many other places-some coming here for asylum, others joining family and friends. All of them brought their traditional cultures and religious mores. The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, secured an excellent debate last week and I agreed with the points that he made about the connection with those faiths.
We have not attempted to regulate this religious diversity. Elizabeth I said:
"I would not open windows into men's souls".
I am proud of the fact that in Britain we have no official register of religions. One does not have to apply for permission from the police or the town hall to follow one's faith. Everyone here may worship as they wish within the law, and the determination of all of us is to ensure that there is absolutely no change to that position.
Recent Governments responded positively to religious diversity in several ways. Processes have been put in place to ensure that faith groups are properly consulted on the development and implementation of policies that affect them. They in turn are encouraged to make the elements of their faith known to the wider community, and to share their cultures. Over time I have had the opportunity and great honour of visiting a number of faiths, including last week a gurdwara in Birmingham, and have been very proud to do so.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, asked why we had discontinued the Faith Communities Consultative Council. We do not believe that a standing advisory council with regular meetings is the most effective or fairest way of consulting faith groups.
We retain contact will all former member bodies of the council and others, but we believe in conducting consultations with the most qualified individuals from the right organisations at the right time. There is no intention to break off any of the discourse or consultation that takes place with them; just to conduct it on a different basis.
As well as providing spiritual succour to their followers, religions inspire great numbers of people to offer service to their own communities and more widely. A number of contributions made that clear today. Tens of thousands of faith-based charities and community groups work tirelessly either in international development such as Islamic Relief or Christian Aid, or in providing homeless shelters, support for young mothers or care for the elderly in their local neighbourhoods. The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury raised the question of this international co-operation. All departments are seeking to improve the way that they work with faith communities, but I will convey his helpful remarks to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Development.
Care of the elderly in local neighbourhoods is part of the support given by faith groups, and annual projects such as the Hindu-led Sewa Day and the Jewish-led Mitzvah Day motivate thousands to perform acts of selfless service. Sikh gurdwaras not only provide free food to all, but run community centres such as the Nishkam Centre in Birmingham, which I visited. Black-majority churches offer free health advice and counselling as well as religious support. I was interested to hear of the cathedral initiative of the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge. We hope that that will be successful.
This jubilee year, the Government are facilitating a programme-a year of service-to celebrate and link-up social action, and I am grateful to noble Lords for mentioning that. Every month, each of nine faith communities in turn is hosting a day of volunteering around the country and inviting people of other faiths and beliefs to join in. Each day of service is linked to either a religious festival or an existing volunteering day and each has a theme, such as visiting the elderly, feeding the hungry or planting trees. In addition to that, we might also say that they are sharing their faith with others and making connections between one faith and another. For example, this March, the Zoroastrian community marked the Iranian new year by bringing music and laughter to old people's homes and hospices in different parts of London. We should urge all faith communities to take advantage of the opportunities offered by a year of service.
Many local councils work well with churches and other faith groups, by commissioning services from them, for example. I hope that more of that will come in the future as a result of the Localism Act. However, the present Government have recognised that faith groups can encounter barriers to their social outreach, such as excessive bureaucracy and difficulty with obtaining planning consent. We are ensuring that regulation is proportionate through the changes that we are making to various regulations to try to remove those barriers to work.
I should make specific mention of the Church of England, not only because the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury is here with us. The church's impressive infrastructure and its duty of care to all who live in its parishes, regardless of belief, have persuaded us to make an investment of £5 million over three years in the Church Urban Fund's Near Neighbours programme. This is providing grants of up to £5,000 to help local people of different faiths to get to know each other and to improve their neighbourhoods together. More than 200 projects have already been supported.
It is clear from what has been said today and from what we all know that it has never been more important to build bridges between our different faith communities. As many noble Lords said, faith can be a force that brings people together rather than dividing them. It also provides support, comfort and strength to many of us, whatever faith we belong to. If we are to realise that promise, it can only be through hard work, discussions and joint working to improve our country and our neighbourhoods. Each faith can contribute its own wisdom, abilities and assets for the good of the whole.
Many contributions have been made today and carried out within the time, and I will not breach that. I wholeheartedly endorse the admiration of the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, for Her Majesty's inspiration and example. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken so movingly, but especially to the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, who had the grace to raise the debate.