Christianity in Public Life

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:19 pm on 11th March 2009.

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

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.