The House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee has published its report on the ‘Big Society’, concluding that there is public confusion with the government’s policy agenda, and though the Committee believes the participation of religious groups should be encouraged, it noted ‘this should not be to the exclusion of groups who deliver services across multi-faith and non-religious communities.’
In June 2011, British Humanist Association (BHA) Chief Executive Andrew Copson was called to give evidence to the Select Committee, in a hearing titled ‘Smaller Government: Bigger Society?’, which gave MPs the chance to examine the role of religion and belief in the government’s ‘Big Society’ agenda. The panel of witnesses also included the Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, Bishop Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester and convenor of the Bishops in the House of Lords, and Charles Wookey, the Assistant General Secretary at the Secretariat of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.
During the evidence session, Mr Copson raised a number of concerns regarding the government’s emphasis on encouraging religious organisations to provide public services on behalf of the state, as a part of its ‘Big Society’ project. The issues discussed ranged from the exemptions religious organisations hold under equality laws, to the negative impact on community cohesion of treating people as members of perceived or declared identity groups rather than as equal, individual members of the wider community. The Committee’s final report noted the BHA’s concerns over the suitability of organisations being awarded contracts over secular groups, such as the charity Eaves Housing losing its contract to provide services for trafficked women, which was subsequently awarded to the missionary church, the Salvation Army.
During the evidence session, Mr Copson also countered the suggestion that a culture of volunteering was a legacy of the UK’s religious heritage and argued the ‘important values of civic participation predate the various Christian institutions in Europe, they’re shared around the world, they’re more likely to be human values, because we’re social animals who cooperate and participate in a shared society, and I think that’s a firmer foundation to build upon.’
The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.