Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Christianity in Public Life

– in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 11th March 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 2:30 pm, 11th March 2009

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Caton. I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for granting me this debate and to colleagues from all parties who have come this afternoon. I am also grateful to the Minister, as I have had some conversations with his office, which I hope will be helpful, to explain my approach. This certainly is not a party political matter, and I am sure that we will conduct the debate in that spirit.

My main reason for securing the debate is to celebrate and put on record the incredible contribution of the Christian community to the life of our country in every one of the 646 constituencies, particularly the work that it does to serve the poorest, the most vulnerable and those in the greatest need. We do not always recognise that work enough, so the debate gives us an opportunity to celebrate it and to say thank you to the many people who do fantastic work, without which we, as Members of Parliament, know our constituencies would be worse off.

It is a given for me that we are a country of many faiths, that some people have no faith, and that quite a lot of people are somewhere in the middle—perhaps searching or having a greater or lesser degree of faith at different points in their life. I have no problem with that. Occasionally, it is said that we are a secular society; some people would like that to be the case, but I do not think that is an accurate description of the UK in 2009. I would say that we are a diverse society, made up of the groups that I have mentioned. There are some who would like faith, including the Christian faith, to be an entirely private matter that is practised at home and that is left at the front door when one goes out to work, especially if one has anything to do with public life. I dispute that position and want to state a contrary view, but will do so very much in the spirit of considering the contribution that people of faith make to the life of our country.

The BBC recently undertook a poll that seemed to show quite widespread public support for the notion that I am expressing. A quote from the BBC's report on the poll caught my eye. It said:

"Many Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and members of other minority religious groups would rather have a Christian-based framework to national life, than one that is entirely secular."

Sometimes, when we consider these matters, we worry about privileging one faith over another, but more important is finding a framework in which we can all co-exist happily. The Church of England, which happens to be our established Church, produced an interesting report last June in which it claimed to take only "a place" in public life in this country. I and many others are entirely happy with that: we are not seeking a dominant position or special favours; we merely want to be at the table when it comes to working in communities and engaging with local and central Government.

When I asked the Library to look at the extent of Christian involvement in the charitable sector, I found out that there are more than 15,000 Christian charities in this country, which is a fantastic number. I also found out that more people do unpaid work for Church organisations than for any other organisation. Indeed, 8 per cent. of all adults undertake voluntary work for Church organisations, while 16 per cent. of adults belong to a religious or Church organisation. The report, "Charity Market Monitor", has estimated that 18 per cent. of all income that was raised by charities in 2006-07 was raised by faith-based charities. That was the second-highest proportion for a generic group, behind health charities. Those facts are worth putting on the record.

I am sure that the Minister is aware that his Department partly sponsored the excellent report, "Faith in Wales: Counting for Communities". There is one Welsh MP present—Mark Williams; perhaps he has read the report and will have a chance to express the view from Wales later. The report, which has been endorsed by the Welsh Assembly First Minister, who is from the Labour party, celebrated the fact that the faith communities in Wales contribute an estimated £102 million to the economy. If that figure is extrapolated to apply to the UK as a whole, the total is £2 billion.

In work on poverty and social exclusion, the UK Christian community has an effect beyond these shores, as well as within them. During the huge protests in Edinburgh before the G8 summit at Gleneagles, a significant proportion of the people who went up there and challenged the Government—indeed, all politicians—on those issues were from different Churches in the Christian community. There will also have been people of all faiths and of none, but a significant proportion of the people there were Christians. I know that the Government welcomed that pressure, as all politicians welcome pressure on issues that we want to progress. That is significant.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Chair, Justice Committee

The hon. Gentleman is making a very interesting speech and I strongly agree with what he is saying. I agree particularly with what he has just said, because it is a departure from times past, when quite senior people in the Conservative party said that the Church must keep out of politics, as though it should have nothing prophetic to say about the issues on which he has rightly commented. I welcome his remarks.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I am grateful to right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I think that there will always be a tension between faiths and Governments of all parties. They are not supposed always to have a perfect relationship, but perhaps that is a reflection of the Church's prophetic role, as he put it. I have no difficulty with that; we are grown up, and we can accept differences of opinion.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Committee

There is also a view, is there not, that politicians should keep out of the Church and out of religion? Was it not rather depressing when the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said that he could not talk about religion when he was the Prime Minister for fear of being called a nutter? Is that view changing? The current Prime Minister mentioned the story of the good Samaritan in his speech to Congress, and Delia Smith is doing a blog on the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development website. Does my hon. Friend think that politicians should speak out and talk about their faith in a natural way, as he is doing?

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I understand where my hon. Friend is coming from. I think that he, like me, heard the Bishop of London speak yesterday, when he advocated that politicians show a degree of reticence about speaking a great deal about their personal inspiration. We lead by example and we should be open about these matters, but that tradition of British reticence has something in it.

Let me return to my central point, which is the contribution of the Christian community to the marginalised and the most disadvantaged. I wonder whether other Members do the same as I do when constituents come to see me on a Friday, having found that their benefit application has not been processed. I say that with the best will in the world and I know that Jobcentre Plus staff work hard, but a family in that position might have no food in the house for the whole weekend. That was a real problem to me when I was a new MP, because I did not know what to do, until someone helpfully pointed out that Salvation Army centres often have food to give out in such circumstances. I am extremely lucky to have in my constituency Salvation Army centres in both Leighton Buzzard and Dunstable, so I know what I can do to help my constituents. A colleague told me today that the Vineyard church does the same in her constituency.

I praise the work of food banks up and down the country. I have had contact with the Trussell Trust, from Salisbury, which also operates in Swindon. It is trying to set up a network of food banks across the country and it happens to be run by a Christian organisation. That sort of work is tremendously valuable. We all accept that there are limits to what the state can or even should do, but that sort of partnership working is critical if we are talking about families who might otherwise go without food on a Friday night.

On work with the homeless, last September I spent some time with the Watford New Hope Trust, an organisation that involves a group of Christians from many different churches in Watford doing the most fantastic work. In the field of criminal justice, I wonder if the Minister is aware of the excellent street pastors initiative? I do not know whether it operates in his constituency, but it is starting to set up in mine. It has some support from the Home Office and I saw in a written answer that it received a small grant. That organisation works closely with police forces across the country.

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Shadow Minister (Justice)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing such an important debate. On the subject of street pastors, he might be aware that yesterday there was a reception for co-ordinators from the initiative. There were 90 representatives of areas from Aberdeen to the Isle of Wight, Chelmsford to Bristol, and all the areas in between. Street pastors is a growing initiative that practises what most people only preach. It shows compassion in action by reaching out to the community, and it produces wonderful results in reducing and helping to drive down crime rates.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I want to move on to exactly that point now. That initiative sounds excellent and I hope that street pastors help the police, but what are the results? We now have results from across the country on the operation of street pastors. I understand that within the first 13 weeks of the operation of street pastors in Lewisham, there was a 30 per cent. reduction in street crime. There was a 95 per cent. reduction in street crime in Camberwell—I am not quite sure if something of extra significance happened there that did not happen elsewhere—and a 74 per cent. reduction in Peckham. In Lincoln, during the first six months of the operation of street pastors, there was a 7.5 per cent. reduction in street crime, and in Cardiff, on Fridays when the street pastors operated there was a 13 per cent. fall in violent crime related to drunkenness.

That initiative is doing the most fantastic work. If there is less crime, police resources are freed up and our communities are better places in which to live. I hope that police forces will co-operate with the initiative, because street pastors have a valuable partnership-working role. My hon. Friend and I are pleased to be able to pay tribute to them. As I have said, a group from that initiative is, I hope, about to be set up in my constituency.

In relation to charities, I would like to give some praise to the Cabinet Office because it has done some good work with the faith sector and Christian organisations. The problem that some of the 15,000 Christian charities I mentioned a moment ago find is that when they work at local authority level with local authority officers, who generally do extremely good work, there is sometimes a lack of understanding of where such charities are coming from and their motivation.

The case of a charity in south London that works with single mothers has come to my attention. The charity works with single mothers of all faiths and of no faith. It operates absolutely no discrimination in terms of the services that it provides, but its website contained something about the Christian basis of what it was doing. It therefore received a letter of rejection in response to its application for funds to extend its work with the local authority. The letter stated:

"your assistance for single parents includes extending Christian comfort and offering prayer".

That was the reason for the charity being cut out of any form of funding for its excellent work.

In another case, a woman who was a very successful foster parent to older children was told:

"your beliefs do not allow you to actively promote another religion for a child".

She was therefore not allowed to continue. The last example I shall give is that of a small charity in Norfolk that does useful work in relation to prostitution in that county. Again, that charity felt that it had been discriminated against and has stated that it feels such discrimination comes from

"people who probably have scant knowledge of the Christian faith and principles".

I draw the Minister's attention to a remark that one of his ministerial colleagues—the Financial Secretary to the Treasury—made during a speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research on 29 January 2009. He said that there is

"A challenge to progressive politicians to show they recognise faith-based perspectives and contributions as valid and mainstream, rather than irrelevant and marginal. That means recognising that faith cannot be relegated to the private sphere and—as the IPPR has already argued—addressing faith literacy in central and local government, so that officials can deal intelligently with input from faith communities And it means thinking hard about identity, recognising the part faith plays, and getting beyond 'We don't do God.'"

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

I agree with the sentiments expressed by the hon. Gentleman. Is it not ironic that many of the faith-based organisations that operate with no sense of discrimination with regard to the background and viewpoints of the people whom they support are themselves discriminated against? That makes it more difficult for them to do the cross-party and no-party faith activities that, as he said, clearly add so much value to civil life.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I am delighted to hear that contribution from the hon. Gentleman. I completely agree with what he says. Being a charitable-minded fellow, I think that such discrimination often comes from ignorance. People do not set out to be difficult and to stop the excellent charitable voluntary work of the Christian community across the country. Such discrimination is sometimes just the result of ignorance, which is why I pin great hopes on what the Minister will say today. I hope that he can give some gentle reassurance to many of our excellent colleagues in local government and elsewhere that there is nothing to fear from such organisations and that they simply add greatly to the quality of life of the communities that we in the House are privileged to serve.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire

At the start of the hon. Gentleman's speech, he talked about Christians and faith groups helping the marginalised in society. However, the current situation means that Christians themselves and members of other faith groups are being marginalised. On his point about the relationship between those working in faith-based charitable organisations and the public sector, does he agree that the case of Caroline Petrie, who was a nurse suspended for offering to pray for a patient, was appalling? That sort of utter overreaction gives an indication of the values of the public sector and its oversensitivity to these matters.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned that. There was also the case of the school receptionist and the debate on what children can say to each other as part of education. There are a number of questions that need to be dealt with. I think that the case he has mentioned had a happy resolution. I do not know the details of what happened in the school, but I hope that an equally sensible solution can be found. I thank him for making that important point.

I shall wind up by making one final point. I was talking to the vicar of a large, growing church in London that does incredible work in all the communities that it serves. He had been dealing with his local authority in relation to a planning application for the church premises. The officer from the local council had asked, "What is the community benefit from enlarging part of your church here?" The vicar told me that the church has 19 ex-offenders in its congregation and only one of those has reoffended. I went to the Library to check the reoffending rates across the United Kingdom for adult and juvenile prisoners, and I understand that the reoffending rates are 46 per cent. for adults and 77 per cent. for juveniles, so there is a pretty obvious answer to that local authority and the people who live in the community where that church is: people are less likely to have their car broken into or their door kicked in on a Saturday night if they have a church doing that sort of work. There are ex-offenders in every community. The example I have given is a small sample and we must not extrapolate too far on the basis of it, but if such work is being done and that sort of data is being collected across the country, that is the community benefit.

I shall draw my remarks to a close now. I am delighted that so many hon. Members have attended the debate and I look forward to receiving reassurance from the Minister on some of the issues I have mentioned.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Gateshead East and Washington West 2:49 pm, 11th March 2009

I thank Andrew Selous for initiating the debate. I am delighted to be able to speak in a debate on Christianity in public life. I am proud to say that I am a Christian. I am a member of the Christian Socialist Movement and I am pleased to say that I am also secretary of the all-party group on Christians in Parliament.

My faith is integral to who I am and is part of who I am. I believe that the endless discussions about secular society are misplaced and that religion and public life remain inextricably linked. The Church and the wider Christian community continue to play an important role in shaping the way in which public policy is discussed and enacted. That can be in respect of what takes place on our own streets as well as far away on other continents.

I want to make two points in this short contribution. First, I wish to rebut the claim that ours is a secular society, and, secondly, I wish to back that up by highlighting the work that God inspires us to undertake, and the contribution that that work collectively makes to society.

We hear a great deal about our multicultural society, some good and some bad. I have always seen myself as living in a Christian country with a multicultural society. The two are not mutually exclusive, and both are good. Our heritage and values as a Christian nation are not only intrinsic to our democracy but are part of our national psyche. Our commitment to fairness and freedom from oppression have their roots in our faith. To my mind, so too does the emergence of our multicultural society. The grace to allow others freedom of expression is the bedrock of such a society, and we must stand up for our heritage and our future by continuing to build inter-faith dialogue.

I attend Eid and Diwali events in my constituency and enjoy celebrating those festivals with the many people for whom they are a happy time of year in which to rejoice. Celebration is common to all of us, and we should share in it wherever possible. It is part of living in a multicultural society, and we should embrace it without ever apologising for being Christians in a Christian country.

Given that not all that long ago our former Prime Minister Tony Blair was told that "We don't do God", this afternoon's debate gives us a welcome chance to speak out about why we should "do" God. I can, of course, understand why that decision was taken. The role of religion in public life is not always a favourable one. Politics driven by faith alone can attract fundamentalism in many guises, none of which are welcome, but we should not pander to those who want to silence our voice. Keeping an ear open to the murmurings of middle England, one hears people bemoaning the decline of religion in today's society. Feral youths roam the streets, they say, morals litter the wayside and no one ever sets foot in a church nowadays except to admire the architecture. But should we believe them, especially when there is evidence to the contrary?

Such people tell us that the loss of Christian values has skewed our moral compass and driven our emergence as a secular society, but the facts do not back them up. The statistics show that we are not really living in the secular, faithless society that many wish to portray. The last census revealed that 70 per cent. of Britons would describe themselves as Christian, and that there are more Jedi knights than secularists on our shores. For many Britons, belief is in the bones and cannot be separated from actions, whether public or private. After all, even secularists believe in secularism. That saint of secularism, Richard Dawkins, has acted with vision, passion and conviction to create a platform for his beliefs in a way that many others have done before.

Like it or not, secularists often sing from the same hymn sheet as those whom they seek to silence. Their insistence on the privatisation of religion is as dogmatic as any other creed. If we are to create a public square where all voices are equal, we must accept, when it comes to politics, that those who do not believe in something would find themselves with no opinions and, therefore, nothing to say.

But faith is not just about discourse—it is about action. Christianity can play a key role in acts of social justice, social transformation and social engagement, and we should encourage such actions. A recent article in The Times said that "Africa needs God". The article discussed the humanitarian work done in Africa by Christian charities such as World Vision and Tearfund and said that it is largely unparalleled by other organisations.

Closer to home, in my constituency, the Gateshead-based Christian charity Aquila Way provides housing for homeless and vulnerable young women in the borough. I visited the charity in 2006 and was particularly touched by its compassion and desire to help others. The project specifically reaches out to young women who are pregnant or have very young children, and it aims to give them the skills and ongoing support to live independently.

Many churches now run parenting courses and seek to encourage families. Cornerstone is an independent fostering and post-adoption support agency based in the north-east of England. It seeks to place children with Christian families and hopes to provide permanent homes for as many children as possible. That stability is important for many children, and the charity has helped many families in the north-east. Those examples show that the Church is not afraid to engage in challenging, long-term work that makes a real difference to people's lives.

My Christianity forms an integral part of my vision for society and how we view the world around us. When we realise the worth of our religion and its message of compassion and equality, the relevance of Christianity is clear. Of course we need to be careful about how we talk about our faith and the discourse that we use. We need to learn to translate our faith to make it better understood by modern Britain.

A recent poll by the BBC showed that two thirds of Britons believe that the role of religion in public life should be respected. That figure will grow if we can devote our energies to living out our faith through our politics and having a noticeable impact on people's lives. That means conveying our message through tangible action and portraying our vision through the changes that we seek and for which we fight.

I have highlighted just a few ways in which Christians engage in public life. Other hon. Members have mentioned and will mention many more. There is a renewed willingness of politicians and public figures to speak up for our Christian traditions and to allow people to embrace that part of our national identity. We need a living Christianity to carry on in the 21st century.

Let us not lament the absence of faith in society, or even lambast those who promote it. Instead, let us embrace and nurture the potential for growth that a living faith brings to Britain and the world.

Photo of Martin Caton Martin Caton Labour, Gower

Order. It might be helpful if I say that I have a list of Back-Bench Members who would like to contribute to the debate, and that we will want to start the winding-up speeches at 3.30. If hon. Members can be brief, we will get more speakers in.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party, Glasgow East 2:56 pm, 11th March 2009

I, too, congratulate Andrew Selous on securing this debate, which I know has been raised in the main Chamber as well. As he said, some would say that Christianity is both personal and private. I, too, would have to disagree with that. Christianity is certainly personal but it cannot be private.

I thought that it might be appropriate to hear what Jesus himself said in Matthew 5:16:

"In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven."

The reason that I wanted to use that verse and actually read it out of a Bible is because after my recent election, I was presented with this Bible by the Gideons, who do extremely worthwhile work throughout the country.

Elsewhere, the Bible says that we should always be prepared to give an account for the hope that is in us, but that leaves us with a question: if Jesus wanted us to be up front and public about our faith, how did he see faith and public life relating, and how would he expect the Church to relate to society?

In the sermon on the mount, Jesus said:

"For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it."

From such passages, it seems that Jesus expected the Church to be a minority group in society. Historically, it has tended to be stronger and to grow more when it has been under pressure. A clear recent example of that is the Church in China. One could argue that, in the world today, the Church is weakest in Europe, where it has generally been accepted by society and has been close to the state. I shall not go so far as to say that I want the Church to be persecuted, even though in the long term that might benefit it, but those of us who follow the Christian faith do not fear being persecuted or imprisoned.

For many years up to the Reformation and since, it was assumed by many that the Church and the state should go hand in hand. At the time of the Reformation, both main parties, and the likes of Luther, Calvin and so on, assumed that that would continue to be the case. At that time, the relatively small group of Anabaptists who originated in Switzerland, south Germany and the Netherlands held out for a stricter separation of Church and state. They were persecuted for their efforts by both the Protestants and the Catholics, but it is to them that I look today for an example of what we should be doing.

In many ways, it was a mistake for the Church to link up with the state at the time of Constantine. I very much enjoyed the speech by Mrs. Hodgson, although she used the term "Christian country". I would dispute whether such a thing is actually possible, and whether there should ever be Christian countries.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Chair, Justice Committee

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that the lineal descendants of the dissident religious groups that he describes are the Amish in the United States of America, who recently experienced a terrible school shooting, which the hon. Gentleman may remember. When the shooting happened, among the volunteer firemen who came to the scene were members of the Amish community. They have preserved a separate relationship but, even to their way of thinking, must sometimes engage with the state to a limited extent. They are remarkable people.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party, Glasgow East

Yes. We could have a long theological debate. The Amish, the Mennonites and others have taken a more distinct view, but I want to be involved in the life of the Church and of the state. There is a danger that parts of the Church are becoming too separate from society, but it is not the Church as a whole but individual believers who should engage in society.

The state's role should be to treat all people equally, whatever faith they have, or lack. The state should not favour Christianity over other faiths, but secular humanism should not be favoured over those who have faith, and nor should any other faith be favoured over Christianity. The briefing for the debate contains examples of places where Christians are discriminated against, and it could be argued that, because Christianity has enjoyed a favoured place for centuries, it should balance that out by suffering a bit. I confess that there may be some validity in that, because the Church has abused its position in many countries, including this one. However, we must surely want to move to a position whereby the state is even-handed.

Some in the Churches want to return to the old days, with Christianity as the state religion. Others fear that it is no longer possible to have a strong Christian faith in public life. Faith became quite a major issue during my by-election last July, and it was encouraging to find that a number of people realised that it was still possible to be open about one's Christian faith and, first, to be selected by a mainstream party, a category in which I include my party, and, secondly, to be elected by the public.

Since arriving at Westminster, I have been interested in the vestiges of Christianity around the place. For example, there is Prayers at the start of each sitting. Is that a good thing? I have mixed feelings about it. Some attend only to book their seat for whatever business comes next, and I fear that the prayers themselves give a dry and dusty view of Christianity. However, I decided on the spur of the moment to have a prayer at the opening of my constituency office in January. My pastor turned up unexpectedly, and I suddenly thought that I would ask him to pray. The reaction was interesting. One unbelieving friend walked out and argued that it was totally inappropriate, while the guy from the local newspaper thought that it was appropriate. So there we are.

Where should those of us with a Christian faith look for a model of how faith fits into society? Some look to Israel in the Old Testament or even to European society in recent centuries, where the state and the Church were strongly interlinked. However, for those who know the Bible, I suggest that a better model might be Daniel, and others such as Joseph and Mordecai, when God's person was in a fairly hostile environment. Daniel stood out as a light in a dark place, and we as Christians should do the same. We are not Christian believers because we are born in England, Scotland or any other country, any more than somebody born in a coal mine is a piece of coal; every one of us has to make our own personal decision about faith. All I ask from society and the state is that they treat us even-handedly.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud 3:03 pm, 11th March 2009

I apologise to Andrew Selous for being late for the start of the debate; I was away with a Select Committee, as I think he knows. I shall be brief, because I want to make only two points.

I welcome the debate. As a Christian, I think that it is important that one tells people of one's faith, because people should register it. I have always found that Christians like to know that one is a Christian, and that people of other faiths and of no faith respect it, too. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I have been attacked. Sadly, it has happened recently, but that is because the battle between secularism and Christianity has created heightened expectations among the latter, and we as Christians must address that.

Like others, including John Mason, I pay due regard to the Christian charities that go places where no other group will go. In my constituency, Marah, which runs a homeless charity, works not only with people who have no home, obviously, but with people who are alcohol or drug dependent, or have other social problems. I have real respect for Marah, because the group does such work day in, day out, and in the most difficult circumstances.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Before the hon. Gentleman moves on to his second, and probably unrelated, point, will he take this opportunity to pay tribute to the quite outstanding international humanitarian and advocacy work undertaken by Christian Solidarity Worldwide, with which he and I are both personally very familiar? If he is inclined to do so, will he also pay tribute to that beacon of hope in an often difficult world, the organisation's south Asia advocacy officer, Ben Rogers, who is a quite remarkable human being?

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

I will. Even though we do not agree politically, we both respect Ben and all he does, and I thank my hon. Friend—in this respect—for highlighting what that wonderful organisation does in all parts of the world. We must recognise that aspect, too, because we are talking about Christianity in public life not just in this country, but in the wider sphere.

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is not directly responsible for the role of religious buildings in communities, because that has been parked with the Treasury. However, it is worth mentioning their role because it affects communities. We underestimate the fact that a religious building is often the single most important building in many communities. All hon. Members know that we have been arm-wrestling the Treasury for some time on the subject of Anglican churches. I respect the fact that that does not include other denominations, such as Catholicism and non-conformism, or other religions, but we have been trying to arm-wrestle money, or at least tax exemptions, to secure recognition that in many of our communities such buildings are crucial institutions.

Religious buildings are often the last to receive any form of public support, which is quite wrong when they undertake huge amounts of community work. I am quite happy to have the condition laid down that if they receive public money, they should be available to the public. That is what Christian institutions should do anyway; they should reach out to people of all faiths and none, but we cannot allow those cornerstone buildings of our communities to be funded almost literally on a wing and a prayer. Many of them are enormously important in terms of their architectural heritage and their whole being—the way in which communities relate to them and use them—so I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will chase that up with the Treasury and clarify the issue.

There are three different bids on the table: the Treasury's own analysis, one from the Church of England, and one from English Heritage. I hope that a few heads will be banged together and that we achieve some clarity, because we cannot have Christianity in public life unless we have a place to go to witness it and to talk to people, regardless of whether we do so for a religious purpose. I hope that my hon. Friend will take that as a nudge to talk to the Treasury, as we too often lose such buildings not because other people take them on but because they fall down. They have to be turned into mausoleums, but they are really important buildings, so I hope that my hon. Friend will take on the issue, and that those buildings will become a real edifice for the way in which Christianity functions in our society.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon 3:09 pm, 11th March 2009

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Andrew Selous for securing this debate and for his tremendous contribution to the life of the Christian community in the Palace of Westminster day in, day out. He is an example to many of us.

What is the purpose—the point—of Christian involvement in the public square? What do we seek to achieve? The first thing to say is that we do not seek to achieve a theocracy through such engagement. We tried that in the 1650s, and it was a bit of a disaster. We do not want that. Someone once said that the Church is at its worst when it has power, but at its best when it has influence, and I agree. The object is not to take over, but to influence decisions made in the public square according to the principles from scripture that John Mason read out so effectively earlier.

At least one hon. Member sitting at these tables will agree that Christians do not have a monopoly on compassion or integrity—Dr. Harris did not expect me to say that. Many secular people demonstrate such qualities in abundance; in fact, when I reflect on my 16 years in the House as a fairly overt Christian, I am reminded that some of the most difficult and judgmental people we have to deal with in our constituencies can be Christians, although that is beginning to change. It is important that we, as believers, demonstrate our faith in the way in which we act and speak, because we sometimes let ourselves down.

I believe passionately in believers engaging in public life through the political system, if that is their calling, but the Christian faith is so much bigger than any one party or ideology and cannot be hijacked by any one side and used to poke others in the eye. We need believers in every party, and the Bible is supportive of all the ideologies reflected in this room.

Perhaps my most important point is that the unique thing about Christianity—the reason why it equips us to engage in public life—is that it is not about a book or a doctrine, but about a living person; it is about a journey or a walk with Jesus Christ, not about a set of rules. It cannot become old-fashioned or stuck in the past, because the person we seek to follow is alive and just as involved in and aware of current events as he was 2,000 years ago. Again, I have to say that the Church has not always reflected the fact that we come to a person, not a book or a set of dusty rules, but we are getting a little better at that, too.

I come now to my main point, although I will be brief because others want to speak, and I am particularly keen to hear Mr. Reed, who speaks eloquently on this subject—no pressure there then, Andy. As has been said, one reason why we should engage in politics is that our faith is the faith of "Love your neighbour", the faith of the good Samaritan and the faith of understanding that every individual is unique and created by God, and therefore special and not to be put on one side or brushed under the carpet as a statistic.

We have heard that many charities throughout the past 200 or 300 years were founded by strong believers and we know that many charities operating in this country are Christian charities. I want to say something to the Minister. The Government and local government are getting better at engaging with faith communities and Christian charities; they are getting better at understanding that the faith motivation that makes such groups successful—that takes them the extra mile and means that they engage with hard-to-reach people and do the work that many other groups do not want to do—must not be squeezed out by Government or council contracts. Authorities want the results, but they do not like the way in which people achieve them.

I totally accept that it is crucial that public money is not used for evangelism, but we must be grown up about that. If Christian organisations get results because of the personal commitment, passion, power and faith of those involved, it is stupid to engage them to help the most vulnerable while denying them the means to do so by saying, "Ah, but you can't do things that way any longer." I hope that the Minister will reassure us that the Government are aware of that. Of course there are dangers, but I think that the Government are moving on the issue.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Like others, my hon. Friend is making an extremely thoughtful and interesting speech. I can well understand and empathise with the concern that he and my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire have expressed about the obstacles that are sometimes put in the way of faith-based groups that seek not to proselytise but to deliver results. However, does he accept that whatever his views about gay sexual practice, for example, it is a bit much for people to say, "As Christians, we are being discriminated by comparison with others"? All that people such as me and the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon would say is that Christian faith cannot trump an Act of Parliament dealing with human rights, which are universal.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

If my hon. Friend visits Christian projects in his constituency, as I am sure he does—indeed, I can take him to a few in south-west Devon if he would like to come with me one weekend—he will see that there has been movement on that issue in most Christian work over the past few years. Most Christian charities are open to all comers and want to serve everybody, irrespective of their background or the condition in which they find themselves. There has been a maturing in the Christian Church and the charitable movement in recent times, so my hon. Friend may be a little out of date.

My final point is that we are living through turbulent times. People often talk about getting through the recession and back to normality, but I do not want to go back to the normality that we had in 2007 and the immediately preceding years. I and others want a new normality—we do not want the debt overhang or the rampant materialism that drove us into our present difficult position. Christian principles of more sharing, more community engagement, more sustainability and less addiction to consumer principles and rampant materialism can help to guide us through this stormy period and into a better normality on the other side, rather than just taking us back to what we had in the past.

Photo of Andy Reed Andy Reed Labour, Loughborough 3:16 pm, 11th March 2009

It is a genuine pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Mr. Streeter—and I do call him my hon. Friend in this case.

I stand here as a Christian. In fact, my hon. Friend and I took part in a meeting this morning. A group of us regularly meet to pray and spend time together. I will not share any confidences, other than to say that my hon. Friend has come a long way, having read "Das Kapital" this week and recognised that Marx predicted the collapse of our international financial system 150 years ago. So there is always room for him on the Labour Benches.

I join my hon. Friend in some of the comments that he has made. I feel a bit like a Liberal because I want to criticise both wings in the current situation, although the danger of being in the middle is that one might get run over by both sides. There is a real problem for the Church. As Christians, we have to find the right role in the public square, but that public square changes over time, and we have not really kept up with those changes.

Just a few months ago, Theos produced a fantastic publication called "Neither Private nor Privileged", and I want to read a quote from it that sums things up and helps us to see where we are. It is from a friend of mine, the American evangelist, Jim Wallace, who says:

"Christianity is a public religion and nothing is going to change the Christian imperative to public proclamation, public assembly, public action, and, if necessary, public confrontation. However, the precise role that Christianity plays within the public square can and does change."

There is no single model of how that would work. I agree with many hon. Members here in that I would like to see the disestablishment of the Church. It is unhealthy to be part of the state process; it is much healthier if we have a voice outwith the state and are allowed to proclaim and sometimes confront.

Jim Wallace is very clear about that. He was a close adviser of Obama's in the lead-up to the election, but he felt it much better as a Christian leader to be slightly outside the political process as it moves forward so that he can challenge Obama and make him accountable to the many Christians who, through initiatives such as the Matthew 25 Network, have changed their allegiance. There was an idea that a right-wing evangelical alliance was part of the American psyche, and we probably sometimes associate that with the word "evangelical", but things have shifted somewhat, and there is greater recognition of that in America.

Perhaps I can use Daniel's time in a foreign land as a model for our public engagement. I have actually had four days of talking about this, because I spoke at spring harvest about the similarities between Daniel's time in a foreign land and our position in the public square. Our situation is very similar. We are in a foreign land where much of the language that we use is difficult for people to understand. They have difficulty with the way in which we do church, the way in which we profess ourselves and, more often than not, the way in which we interact with this place. I am sure that if I asked hon. Members to put up their hands and say where their worst letters come from, they would say it was from our Christian brothers and sisters, who write to us in the most terse of terms. I can understand why many MPs, and other people, who do not have a faith, are very turned off by that. We are seen by people who do not have a faith as hypocritical, sometimes. I think that Yancey says it in his book on grace. A prostitute he talked to, to whom he suggested it would be a good idea if they went into the local church, said she felt bad enough about herself, and asked why on earth she would want to go in there to be made to feel even worse.

We can hold up examples of fantastic Christian-based projects across the country. I am on the Evangelical Alliance council, and was challenged because there is a new book and some prayer thoughts coming out, to be circulated to churches, with the subtitle "Would anyone in your community notice if your church ceased to exist?" In all the examples that we have heard today, probably people would notice; but let us be honest about what would happen in many places if the church ceased to exist. There would be derelict buildings, as my hon. Friend Mr. Drew said, but in reality the community outreach does not happen everywhere. There is a call on us to live in deeds, as James says—it is about our deeds and actions, as much as our proclamation and faith, and the word. It is about making the Bible a living document, not just the written word.

There is great pressure on us, if we are going to ask for a position in the state, to live by what we say we live by. As the hon. Member for South-West Devon says, in the old terminology, which I think is still fairly relevant, each time we stand, we say "What would Jesus do?" It is important for every one of us who carries out our faith to ask what Jesus would do in the same circumstances. We know from the Bible that Jesus would be a bit of a rebel; going into the temple and throwing out the money lenders. Perhaps we should have sent him into the City to throw out the money lenders a little earlier. He would be there, decrying the way we have run society for the past 40 or 50 years. There are many people concerned with simplicity of living who have recognised that for a generation. There has been a shift into green issues; but the Bible has been there for the past 2,000 years, and many Christians have felt deeply what is needed, and have wanted to make it part of the agenda. There is an enormous opportunity for us, but the position must be that the Christian faith is neither private nor privileged. It is a private faith that must be lived out in the public square. We do that by example, not necessarily by just demanding our right to those words, but by our life, and because people want to give us the public square and the ability to say those things. It is fundamental.

As to the problems of fundamentalism and the fundamentalist secularism that I have come across, I have been shocked in the past two or three years in which I have been involved in this debate at how aggressive some of my Christian colleagues can be, and how offputting that can be to others. It is strange, because I get on really well with most of the secularists in my constituency, with whom I have a very healthy debate; but I have also been shocked by aggressive fundamentalism on both wings, which is unhealthy. However, that is what happens in public debates; they are the ones who get attention. In reality, most debates on this issue would be healthy debates, like ours today. If I sit down soon enough to give him his six or seven minutes, Dr. Harris will contribute in a very thoughtful way.

There is much more to say, and I feel passionately about this subject. Christians have an imperative to learn how to use the public square and to proclaim from outside, leading by example. In that way we do not get privilege, but we get a fair deal in the public square, which allows us to profess our faith. It is part of our DNA. It is part of who I am. My Bible notes this morning and yesterday were about the good Samaritan. My conscience was pricked throughout the day by what I read, in the same way as last week's reading of "Das Kapital". Those things are part of who we are, and our faith must be part of who we are. Not to be able to say those things in public would be deeply damaging.

Finally, I do not believe in the sense of Christian tradition. Our faith evolves and reacts to the society we are in. Christians must change with the times to meet growing changes and demands—the way that we do church is a classic example. I could go on for ages about that. We need to find the words to make sure that we live in grace when we act and react in the public square, and give others the space to criticise us; but let us leave it at that. Let us make sure that we walk away as friends when we disagree about our role in the public square. I thank Andrew Selous for helping us to get this debate. We are not asking for more than a fair deal, and to make sure that most of us lighten up a little about the issue.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister 3:24 pm, 11th March 2009

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate, and to Andrew Selous for introducing it. I also welcome the tone of the speeches. I shall give a secular point of view and I invite hon. Members to see whether it is extreme, because it is the secular point of view.

First, I want to ask about the definition of terms. The confusion starts with the title of the debate. I could understand and indeed sympathise with a debate about Christians in public life. As Mr. Streeter said, Christians and other people of religion should be encouraged to engage in public life. I agree with that. I do not think that they are shy in coming forward. Our democracy and public policy-making are better for it. People of all perspectives should come forward; there should be no discrimination—and I do not think there is—to prevent people of religion from coming forward and playing a role.

Secondly, should Christian values play a role in public life? Yes, they should, of course, in the battle of ideas, just as any others should, whether humanist, socialist or conservative, because we base our policies and moral standpoints on values. Whether there should be a monopoly for one set of values I very much doubt. Some countries have such a monopoly, whether through political dictatorship or theocracy, and we know that in theocracies some groups, such as women and gay people, do very badly. That is predictable and identifiable. However, there are clearly shared values. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" and "Love thy neighbour" predate the New Testament. They are central tenets of Christianity, and also of most secular moral codes. They are something we should embrace. People may understand them as Christian and may argue that they should play a central role in public policy, but that does not mean it should happen because they are Christian. They are just a rational and sensible approach.

Arguing for Christianity in public life is equivalent to arguing that there should be a role in public life for Islam, socialism or liberalism; but I do not think there should be such a role, because it is a set of ideas and should not have privilege simply because it is religious. We recently debated blasphemy laws, which not all but many religious organisations were desperate to keep, although in fairness I do not think that many of them are represented here. Many hon. Members voted for their eventual abolition. Those laws gave protection in the battle of ideas and discourse for a particular set of ideas.

The other confusion is that the option is either relegation of religion to the private sphere—also labelled the privatisation of religion, which I do not believe in—or the privileging of religion. However, there is a middle way. The privileging of religion, which I oppose, would be to allow religious organisations that deliver public services to discriminate against their employees when they were delivering such a public service. I am not talking about proselytising or discrimination on religious grounds against vicars; I am talking about the people who provide the soup kitchens, shelters, and so forth. They should not be discriminated against on religious grounds, and we should not give money to organisations that discriminate against gay people or people of religion when delivering public service. They should not discriminate against service users on religious grounds. They should not have the right to do that, and should not be allowed to proselytise on the state, as it were, using public funding, or while delivering a public service.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has been called to speak, because he is putting the contrary case, to an extent, and it is right that he should. I just want to take him back to the small charity in south London, and the piece on the website: the reason for denying funding—I paraphrase slightly—was that the charity extends Christian care and offers prayer. That was the reason for a rejection. What is the hon. Gentleman's view on that example?

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

It will be fact-specific. We have heard a lot about the anecdote, and I do not blame hon. Members for that. I think Nurse Petrie is a better example, because the facts are more clearly available to all of us. She was a district nurse in a position of responsibility, going into a patient's home. Doctors and nurses in that situation are performing a function as a doctor or nurse and their primary responsibility is to their patient, who is in a vulnerable position. As I understand it, there had been a series of complaints against Nurse Petrie, not just one. It is very unusual for an elderly person receiving district nursing care to think to complain unless something pretty obvious has happened. What took place had happened more than once. It was inappropriate, and I believe that the Nursing and Midwifery Council and the General Medical Council would also argue that it is inappropriate for a person delivering care to say, "Would you like to pray with me?" If a person feels that prayer helps, that can be done separately by them; they do not need to be engaged in that. If it is thought that someone could help, a patient can be told, "If you are religious, you might like to talk to your priest about this"—whatever the religion is—"to see if you can get spiritual support that way." But a medical professional employed by the NHS or any other body needs to have a clear boundary, otherwise there is a feeling of pressure being put on someone.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Chair, Justice Committee

My hon. Friend seems to exclude a conversation that would be quite common in many professions, including medicine, where a patient who knows a doctor says to them, "You are a churchgoer—a Christian—aren't you? Is prayer any use in all this?" The doctor may say, "What I believe is this." Should the doctor say, "I'm sorry, I can't talk to you about that. You'll have to make a separate appointment with me on another occasion."?

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

I am in difficulty over time, so I will not have a chance to respond. [Interruption.] Well, I am happy to do so, but my right hon. Friend will accept that I have to wrap up this minute.

There is a balance of rights and freedoms and we have to be aware that people feel strongly about their religion. But a line should be drawn. People should be allowed to practise and manifest their belief as long as it does not interfere with the rights and freedoms of others and where it does the state has a role to protect the freedoms of others from discrimination—even well-meaning discrimination in the name of religion.

K

I do not agree with what Dr Harris is implying here, that the practising person should not have the freedom to ask the question. I think the practising person has a freedom to ask a very brief question, and the interlocutor equally has total freedom to say no (or yes). That is the essential nature of personal care, questions between people, and dialogue and conversation in the public sphere.

Submitted by Kaihsu Tai

Photo of Sarah Teather Sarah Teather Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning) 3:31 pm, 11th March 2009

I congratulate Andrew Selous on securing the debate. He made a measured intervention at the start of the debate and I am grateful to him for setting a measured tone.

I particularly enjoyed a number of speeches. The hon. Members for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) and for Glasgow, East (John Mason) made thoughtful, reflective contributions to the debate. A couple of the things that the hon. Lady said struck a chord with me. I represent the most ethnically diverse constituency in the country. On going about my daily duties in Brent, I do not recognise the argument that we live in a wholly secular society. I engage with many of the organisations that I meet on religious terms. That surprised me, as a new Member of Parliament. At a West Indian function the dinner will invariably begin with a prayer—probably several—and probably a hymn. Ghanaian functions are similar. A Pakistani function, even in a secular community centre, will begin with a recitation from the Koran and every secular speaker will begin their speech with the Arabic words, "Bis millah arahma nirahim", which mean, "I speak in the name of God the most gracious and most merciful." I recognise all that from my own constituency.

I was reminded of what Madeleine Bunting said in her article in The Times about the disjunction between the adverts on the atheist bus and the often poor immigrants sitting on the top deck of the bus returning from a night shift with their prayer books open on their laps. There is sometimes that disjunction in respect of a debate in one place that does not touch people at all in some areas of the country.

The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire used the words "Christian community" a lot in his speech. Under that umbrella, we need to be aware that we are a heterogenous group. The contributions to this debate have come from hon. Members with different theological backgrounds. The denominations in the UK have different histories and traditions. Those traditions and theologies inform what we believe about what it is to be church, how we should engage with society, the kind of language that we use and our role, particularly in politics. The great dissenting traditions have always been counter-cultural, but other Christian traditions are focused much more on dialogue.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

My hon. Friend is right in saying that dissent is often associated with faith, but she must also remember that Jesus himself was something of a dramatic radical in his day. Does she agree that what was radical 2,000 years ago has been so successfully embraced in British society that there is an underlying narrative based on the Christian faith? Although there must be tolerance of all different faiths in this country, nevertheless we live in what must reasonably be called a faith-based society with Christianity at its core.

Photo of Sarah Teather Sarah Teather Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning)

I accept my hon. Friend's point about Christian values. If I have time I will return to that point.

Within Christian groups—I see it most clearly in the Catholic tradition—there are different views about how we should engage with politics and with the world. That depends a little on how people read the different traditions of Aquinas or Augustine. People may prefer Augustine's model of two cities, with a real disjunction between the world and the kingdom in heaven or they may take a more positive view, from the Thomist tradition, about engagement with politics and politics being part of the good life. Those two disjunctions exist and they follow right through all the different Christian modes of thought. I see that, in the Catholic tradition, in the changes apparent between one pope and another in terms of the type of language used and whether they are particularly anti-modernity or more focused on negotiation and dialogue. We need to be aware of that, rather than grouping all Christians into the same group.

I am uncomfortable with the idea that Christians are, in some way, discriminated against or persecuted in the United Kingdom. There is a long tradition of martyrdom in Christian thinking that we tend to take upon ourselves with great ease. I wonder, when reading the Daily Mail, whether it would draw the wounds on itself if such an image were not too Catholic for most of middle England. I accept that Christianity and faith are often misunderstood—the Von Hügel Institute said that in its report, "Moral, But No Compass—Government, Church, and the Future of Welfare"—but whether that always equates with discrimination is a moot point.

Photo of Andy Reed Andy Reed Labour, Loughborough

I agree entirely with the hon. Lady. Does she agree that God is big enough to deal with not having a Christian stamp and those sorts of things? That is not persecution compared with the persecution that I see as a member of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, having visited people who genuinely die for their belief.

Photo of Sarah Teather Sarah Teather Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning)

The hon. Gentleman puts the point well and I agree. There is a tendency to lump the three recent cases together—the woman and her cross at Heathrow, the school receptionist and the praying nurse—as if they are all examples of discrimination. What those cases all have in common is a complete breakdown between the employer and the employee and a tendency to get the whole thing grossly out of proportion in the media. But they are about different things. One case is about whether religious symbolism should have a place in the public sphere, but the other two cases are, as my hon. Friend Dr. Harris said, about the difficulties of defining the boundaries of people's dual roles. Those debates are beyond faith and not only about faith.

The symbolism issue has been portrayed by many people as being about Christians needing to be treated on a par with other faiths, and about our being free to practise our faith entirely as we choose in the public realm, subject to the requirements of good public order, with all faiths being treated the same. However, all faiths are not the same. Some faiths have an absolute requirement regarding strict dress codes, but Christianity does not. I heard the words from the Bible that the hon. Member for Glasgow, East used about the need for people to proclaim their faith in public, but there are plenty of other places in the Bible where we are told to beware of practising our piety in front of others. There are occasions on which we would do well to remember that. I am more convinced by some of the arguments that hon. Members have raised about local authorities sometimes misunderstanding the importance of Christian organisations in delivering local services and misunderstanding the contributions that those can make.

The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire mentioned faith literacy. That was a sensible contribution. A number of hon. Members said that it is difficult for people in public life to speak about their faith. This is a debate in Parliament. So in a sense we are calling on the Government and the state to respond. However, we have to be aware that there are limits on politics and on what we should expect the political realm to intervene in. Whether it is difficult for people to speak about their faith is a matter for society as a whole, not for politics specifically.

When we speak about politics in public life, we are in danger sometimes of collapsing all of political space into the state and those organisations immediately surrounding it, rather than considering the wider issues of political community and civic society. I felt that particularly when listening to my hon. Friend speak about public space. There are lots of different tiers. We have politics and Parliament, think-tanks and Churches as a body corporate and those play a role. Then there is the wide political community, including organisations that act through the voluntary sector, and those whose individual vocation will affect how they work.

Churches have a particular role in influencing policy decision making, particularly in moral formation, which we should all welcome. The very essence of the message of the incarnation, which is central to Christianity, is about the importance of human beings. The Christian Churches should have a unique ability to remind us of the human face when we make political and policy decisions that affect the whole of society. Mr. Reed mentioned Daniel's narrative about being in a foreign land, and the Christian narrative of exile has a lot to teach us about how we treat asylum and immigration.

My final point is cheeky and a little provocative. We have discussed Christian values in Britain, and perhaps the most fundamental, which I accept have been embedded in secular society, are solidarity and equality before the law. They are original Christian principles, and if we are going to get into a flap about the loss of Christian values in Britain, our priority should be to focus on them. We should worry less about secular society damaging them, and more about the state encroaching upon them.

Photo of Paul Goodman Paul Goodman Shadow Minister, Communities and Local Government 3:41 pm, 11th March 2009

It is a pleasure, Mr. Caton, to see you in the Chair. The contribution of Sarah Teather has reminded us all that this has been a debate of extreme theological literacy. I think everyone in the Chamber this afternoon would agree that some of our debates, sadly, are a little too short and I would have been very happy to hear many of the hon. Members who have spoken this afternoon expound their ideas at greater length. It was a particular pity that Dr. Harris had to compress his thoughts, because I would have liked to hear him speak at greater length. I have no idea whether I am unusual in that, but that is my view.

I should start by congratulating my hon. Friend Andrew Selous on conceiving this debate as a sort of procession that would honour the work of the Churches and faith communities. He succeeded completely. There have been some fine speeches. I naturally assume that all speeches from my hon. Friends on the Conservative Benches are fine, so I will single out, perhaps unfairly, Mrs. Hodgson, who clearly put a lot of thought into her speech, and the carefully worked-out speech of John Mason who made a number of interesting points about Church and state.

Many Christians seem to believe that there is new scepticism, even new hostility, in relation to Christians and the Churches, and about organised religion as a whole, and perhaps Christianity in particular. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon spoke for that point of view, and made it clear that he has nothing against organised religion, but simply believes that it should not have a privileged place in the pubic square. He gave that view with great intelligence and acumen. It reminded me of the recent campaign by the British Humanist Association, which sent buses around the capital, and perhaps elsewhere, proclaiming that there is probably no God, so people should stop worrying and enjoy their life—the presumption being that if there is a God, one should start worrying and stop enjoying life. I will not be drawn, nor presumably will hon. Members, into the logical fallacies of that argument.

At the Conservative party conference last year, the National Secular Society had a stall for the first time, and I think that represents how secularists are beginning to come into the public sphere to make their argument. The society states on its website that some delegates said, "Thank God you are here", which is a peculiar way of expressing gratitude for its presence, but perhaps that is a sign of the times.

What is making Christians, members of Churches and others so nervous? There are three reasons, and I will run through them quickly. First, the elephant in the room is violent extremism claimed in the name of Islam. No one can claim that the effects of 9/11 and of 7/7 in the UK have not had a significant knock-on effect on the tone and content of public debate. We saw that in passing in the recent debate on whether faith schools should be compelled to take 25 per cent. of pupils who do not practise the faith that the school in question stands for. We obviously do not view Islam with hostility, and I want to put it on the record that the Conservative party believes that Islam is a great and ancient religion, which has an invaluable part to play in modern Britain, but we must acknowledge that factor, and that it has influenced debate in recent years.

Secondly, aligned with that factor is the rise of fundamentalism. Conservatives have nothing against people who want to return to the fundamentals of their faith, but data from across the world show that it is generally true that the more liberal elements in mainstream religions are not recruiting members and worshippers as rapidly as the more fundamentalist streams. Those fundamentalist streams, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim, can have negative aspects. I referred to violent extremism in the name of Islam. Some Jews—fortunately, a minority—seem to believe in an enlarged state of Israel that would encroach on the life of others. Some Christians in the United States, against that country's traditions, believe in a theocracy.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of Paul Goodman Paul Goodman Shadow Minister, Communities and Local Government

I was ticking off three reasons for today's scepticism and hostility towards organised religion, including Christianity. I ticked off the rise of violent extremism and fundamentalism. The third reason is a general anti-establishment movement against religion, to which the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West referred, when she mentioned the Jedi knights, which as she knows the 2001 census found—extraordinarily—to be the fifth-largest religious denomination in the UK.

As my hon. Friend Mr. Streeter said, Christian and religious believers obviously have no monopoly of virtue, and it would be deeply insulting to atheists, agnostics and people of no faith to suggest otherwise. He was quite right about that. However, I would simply observe, as a constituency Member of Parliament, as well as a Front-Bench Member, that if the faith institutions and Churches disappeared from my constituency tomorrow, much of the tapestry of civil society would simply unweave. The contribution of Churches and Christians, now and over the centuries, to schools, hospitals, charitable work in prisons and voluntary work generally, which many people have illustrated, has made Britain a better country, and continues to do so. If by an act of the imagination Christianity were removed from its place in the public sphere—a settled place that is respected, particularly in England—this country would be the poorer for it. I look forward to hearing what the Government have to say, in particular about their faith strategy, and once again I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire on securing the debate.

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) 4:19 pm, 11th March 2009

I congratulate Andrew Selous on securing this debate, which I am sure every Member will agree has been stimulating and thought-provoking. A leading member of the all-party group on Christians in Parliament, he has brought his experience and knowledge to this debate.

I shall begin by stating what I believe. Britain today, as it has been throughout its history, is a wonderfully diverse country with a number of faiths, but it sees itself predominantly—I choose my words carefully—as an implicitly Christian nation. My hon. Friend Mrs. Hodgson mentioned the 2001 census in her tremendous and thought-provoking intervention. In the last census, which was not too long ago, people of this country had the opportunity to register the fact that they had a faith or that they had no faith. Some 74.6 per cent. of people chose deliberately to describe themselves as Christian, and 5.4 per cent. claimed adherence to a religion other than Christianity. At this point I should like to say that I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning the Jedi knights, on which Mr. Goodman elaborated.

Not all those who identify with a faith are regular worshippers. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that for a great many people, religious background is an integral part of self-identity. Their faith can provide them with a comfort and a sense of moral purpose. One of the key themes of today's debate is that a number of people are drawn by their faith into public life as a means of bettering the condition of society. The relationship between politics and faith-based morality has been and is a strong one.

Politics should not be merely bureaucratic or managerial in its intent and purpose, but should be enlivened and deepened through a sense of value, principles and morals. Harold Wilson famously said that the Labour party is a moral crusader or it is nothing. Today's Labour party, which was born of the marriage of trade unionism, nonconformist religion and politics in the age of the industrial revolution, remains strongly committed to the principles of furthering progressive politics through such means as eradicating poverty, increasing equality and improving opportunity for all.

Some people draw their moral compass through faith and others through secularism. Let me elaborate on that. Very often people are drawn to public life through their faith. Certainly in the fields of international development, environmental campaigning and the politics of climate change, faith groups have played an enormous role, particularly in the Jubilee debt campaign and the hugely successful Make Poverty History campaign, which the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire mentioned in his opening remarks, as well as monitoring progress and putting pressure on politicians to achieve the millennium development goals.

In my own constituency, the Hartlepool for Global Peace and Justice group, which is a predominantly Christian group, works hard and effectively to promote international development. It was instrumental in ensuring that Hartlepool became a fair trade town, which is something that councils and local housing institutions now push actively. It is appropriate to mention that, given that fair trade fortnight has just finished. Such groups have a real role to play in local politics.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

I agree with the Minister that faith at its best creates practical results in the community. Does he agree with me that churches such as Hope Community church in my home town of Newtown make faith into a 21st-century event in a non-dogmatic way by reaching out in exactly the way in which he said? I invite him to Hope Community church, where he can join us in celebrating the very best of faith in mid-Wales, and no doubt we shall pray for his career.

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

I am certainly heartened by the hon. Gentleman's invitation and look forward to visiting his constituency.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. In 21st-century society, there is a range of different groups, such as residents associations, voluntary organisations and faith-based groups, which pull together the web of society and help to improve the lot of many, including those who are vulnerable and disadvantaged. The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire pressed that theme strongly in his speech.

I want to draw a balance. I am not suggesting for one minute that humane values and good works are the preserve of religious people. Humanist non-believers such as Bertrand Russell have a proud record of service, too. None the less, the Christian faith has very often been the motivating force behind our great reformers. John Mason mentioned prayers at the start of business in the House. We continue to pay tribute to that Christian inspiration as we start business in the House of Commons every day. That is an important point. Some choose to participate in the daily prayers, others do not. It is not compulsory, but it can be a source of great comfort and solace for many hon. Members.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West, the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire mentioned the idea of a secular society. He expressed some distaste for it as something that is as non-inclusive and unfeeling as a strict theocracy. With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, I think that he has missed the point. British society is indeed secular, in that religious belief and practice is no longer a prerequisite for advancement or public office. I think that we would all agree with that. The idea that Benjamin Disraeli could not have become Prime Minister had he remained a Jew and had not become anglicised is anathema to most hon. Members today. We no longer expect our university dons to have taken holy orders or for all witnesses in court cases to swear on the Bible. I am sure that the whole House would agree that that is right, but I would go further. The Government are clear that religious practice, still less conversion, should never be a precondition for people benefiting from services offered by faith-based organisations.

None the less, we are self-evidently not secular, in that great numbers of religious people still live and worship in Britain. They are entirely free to do so and their freedom of worship is at the core of our system of law, as was mentioned earlier in the debate. This Government have introduced tough legislation to punish any incitement to hatred or violence on the grounds of religion or belief. Although there has been a long decline in churchgoing—it is now showing signs of levelling off in some denominations—the majority of regular and occasional worshippers are still Christians. Other faiths respect that and so should the non-observant majority.

One often reads in the media a lot of hysterical talk about the banning of Christmas or Christmas decorations by local authorities. I should like to take this opportunity to restate the Government's policy, which is to encourage local authorities to respect the religious beliefs and perspectives of people of all faiths and none. Although certain local authorities may adopt different approaches when marking significant festivals and religious occasions, the Government strongly advise local authorities to respect traditional and widely observed celebrations such as Christmas, which are valued by the majority of citizens in this country.

As the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire outlined, there can be circumstances in which public authorities shun Christian religious celebrations because of the perception that it may cause offence to other religious groups. The Government strongly believe that that rationale and the actions taken as a consequence are not only rubbish, but downright dangerous. I draw the House's attention to a statement made last year by the Christian Muslim Forum that

"Those who use the fact of religious pluralism as an excuse to de-Christianise British society unthinkingly become recruiting agents for the extreme Right. They provoke antagonism towards Muslims and others by foisting on them an anti-Christian agenda they do not hold."

I agree with that stance. The Government strongly echo those sentiments and caution those who make judgments on what may or may not offend particular communities to examine the wider impact on community cohesion that their actions may have.

The hon. Gentleman said, as did other hon. Members, that he wants Christian-based organisations to be fully integrated into the delivery of services to disadvantaged people. The Government agree with that approach. We know that faith is an important driver behind volunteering and civic participation. As I have said, many faith-based organisations provide essential services to their local communities, through the local voluntary sector, and we applaud that. We want to ensure that when faith-based bodies are ideally placed to deliver services to those whom Government find it hard to reach—often in the field of homelessness and rough sleeping, for which I have ministerial responsibility—funding is available to allow them to do so effectively. In short, we want to harness better the energy and practical contribution that faith communities bring to our society.

One of the themes of today's debate has been the concern about the way in which some local authorities manage their relationship with faith communities. We have heard those concerns directly through our engagement with faith communities, including Christian Churches. To be frank, there is a belief that some local authorities feel somewhat squeamish about putting money into faith-led projects. That arises partly from ignorance—I think the hon. Gentleman used that word in his speech—and partly from a suspicion that such projects might use public funds for inappropriate purposes in a way that is not properly inclusive.

I understand those concerns, but I believe that they are usually misplaced. The vast majority of faith-based projects offer services out of a simple desire to serve disadvantaged or vulnerable people. We are therefore working closely with faith-based groups to identify how we can improve the participation of faith communities in local public partnerships. We are seeking to refresh the guidance published by the Local Government Association in 2002, "Faith and Community: A Good Practice Guide for Local Authorities" which sets out existing good practice in relations between local authorities and faith communities.

There is also a need for local authorities to understand faith communities better, including the fact that they are racially and culturally diverse. That has an impact on how local communities manifest their faith. To that end, my officials are working with Churches Together in England and other faith community representatives to develop and roll out faith literacy training for local authorities. Regionally, we are delivering similar training to Government offices; and at the centre, the Department for Communities and Local Government is developing its capacity as a centre of expertise for Departments across Whitehall. Finally, we have said that we will develop a charter of excellence for faith communities in service delivery. That undertaking will be similar to the model of the existing faithworks charter, which Christian and other faith-led organisations sign to assure funding providers that services will be delivered in accordance with the relevant equality legislation.

I hope the House will agree that that approach is entirely reasonable. We are not saying that organisations in receipt of public funding cannot be open about their religious motivation, display religious symbols or tell beneficiaries about their faith. We understand that the principle of mission is central to religions, including Christianity and Islam. However, we are saying that the provision of services cannot be conditional on participation in religious activity, nor can services be provided in a way that does not conform to equality legislation and nor can public money pay for worship or activities specifically designed to do that.I am grateful to have had the opportunity to clarify the Government's position on those important matters.