Christianity in Public Life

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 11th March 2009.

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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.