Government and ‘faith’ communities

We want a state with no discrimination or privilege on grounds of religion or belief and with truly inclusive approaches to public policy. We therefore want government and others to recognise the value of communities as a whole (rather than religious ‘communities’) and the contributions made by humanists and the non-religious at large as well as those from religious people. We want communities where people of all different backgrounds and beliefs engage and work with each other for the benefit of the whole community. Only in this context can people be positively empowered to make choices about their lives.

Government is increasingly encouraging religious groups to take on a role in local communities and pressing local government to welcome such religious groups as ‘partners’. Insofar as these arrangements are no more than what would be offered to any local group with strong links with the local community, such moves may be acceptable.

However, there is strong evidence to suggest that what the government intends amounts to new privileges for religion, such as a distinct role in providing public services on behalf of the state at national, regional and local levels (see Public Service Reform). We work for a state with no privilege or discrimination on grounds of religion or belief and so find this unacceptable. In terms of social cohesion initiatives, religious groups and communities have been singled out by government as having a special importance and being in need of special attention and assistance, mostly in isolation from other communities and almost always to the exclusion of the non-religious – normally under the remit of ‘faith’ or ‘interfaith’ strategies.

Interfaith initiatives, by their very name and nature, are exclusive and do not involve humanists and other non-religious people in the community. Most bodies which government promotes and engages with as means of bringing people of different beliefs together are ‘interfaith’ groups and explicitly exclude the non-religious. ‘Where such initiatives are willing to include those with non-religious beliefs we support humanists joining them, but have a preference for the inclusion of non-religious people to then be made clear in the name of the group in question.

We believe that, rather than making a fetish of faith, social cohesion and other community initiatives must focus on the contribution that all individuals and groups in the community can make. Where there are legitimate reasons for working with communities identified by beliefs, then these must also include humanists and other non-religious people, and we support the involvement of humanists in those circumstances.

The ‘Big Society’ and Localism

There is no agreed definition of what the ‘Big Society’ is (beyond being a useful slogan) or what it might mean in practice. On the one hand, we welcome initiatives that encourage civil, social and political participation. We support democracy and we know that humanists are often social activists already, driven by their desire to work for the good society for the benefit of all.

On the other hand, there is every indication that the government and its agencies will focus disproportionately on religious groups and communities as part of its ‘Big Society’ agenda, probably to the exclusion of many ordinary people within so-called ‘faith’ groups and certainly to the detriment of wider society and social cohesion. That is a policy about which we are critical particularly because it tends to view and treat people by perceived or declared group identity rather than as equal, individual members of the wider community.

Unless the ‘Big Society’ and any related initiatives are secular, neutral on matters of religion and belief, treating all people equally regardless of belief, and without privilege or discrimination, then they will fail to be inclusive and may serve to divide rather than to unite society.

 

What’s happening?

The Coalition Government says that it wishes to promote the devolution of power to a more local level. The concomitant aims of this programme, as articulated both in the Conservative 2010 election manifesto and the Coalition Programme for Government (PDF), are to reduce social expenditure and to pursue a decentralised approach to the provision of public services that aims to be more attuned to the requirements of local service users.

In addition to cost and efficiency savings, it is proposed encouraging active involvement in the community will address a perceived culture of dependency, and strengthen civil society and in turn facilitate improved community relations.

The government is pursuing these in its Localism Bill, which proposes to devolve powers to local authorities, provide greater opportunities for community groups to challenge local authorities, and assume responsibility for running key public services.

The Big Society Agenda, being coordinated through the Cabinet Office, intends to ’empower’ communities, open up public service provision to external bodies, and encourage citizen action.  The scheme is designed to provide a supporting mechanism for local community groups as they assume greater control over their services.

The BHA’s position on the ‘Big Society’

The BHA’s general position is that we want government and others to recognise the value of communities as a whole and the contributions that humanists, as well as religious people, make to their communities. We want communities where people of all different backgrounds and beliefs engage and work with each other for the benefit of the whole community. Only in this context can people be positively empowered to make choices about their lives.

There is no agreed definition of what the ‘Big Society’ is or what it means in practice. On the one hand, the BHA welcomes initiatives that encourage civil, social and political participation. We support democracy and we know that humanists are often social activists already, driven by their desire to work for the good society for the benefit of all.

On the other hand, it seems as though the ‘Big Society’ will focus on groups and communities rather than on individuals. That is a policy about which we are critical particularly because it has the potential to view and treat people by perceived or declared identity rather than as equal, individual members of the wider community. There is every indication that the government and its agencies will focus specifically on religious groups and communities as part of its ‘Big Society’ agenda, probably to the exclusion and detriment of many within so-called ‘faith’ groups and certainly to the wider society and social cohesion.

For example, Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government have been very vocal in praising religious groups, and even religion itself, as fundamental to the government’s vision.

DCLG press release ‘Keeping Faith in the Big Society’, 12th July 2010, reports that Communities Minister Andrew Stunell MP said, ‘Faith groups… are integral to creating the Big Society’.

DCLG press release ‘Andrew Stunell puts faith in Big Society’, 15th July 2010, reports, ‘Inter faith activity is an important component of the Big Society we want to build’.

DCLG press release ‘Communities Minister urges faith groups to inspire community action’, 20th October 2010, states that ‘Mr Stunell stressed that faith based community action is a key plank of the Big Society vision’.

We believe that, rather than making a fetish of faith, social cohesion and other community initiatives – within and without the ‘Big Society – must focus on the contribution that all individuals and groups in the community can make. Where there are legitimate reasons (although we can imagine these would only ever be very few) for working with communities identified by beliefs, then this must include humanists and other non-religious people, as well as religious people.

Unless the ‘Big Society’ and any related initiatives is secular, that is, neutral on matters of religion and belief, treating all people equally regardless of belief, and without privilege or discrimination, then it will fail to be inclusive and may serve to divide rather than to unite society.

For more information about the BHA’s position on ‘communities’ and policies targeted specifically at religious groups in society. For more information, see our pages on Government and ‘Faith Communities’

Localism

A key issue for us is the enthusiasm of successive governments have for placing contracts with religious organisations and for commissioning public services including ‘free schools’ from faith groups. This gives rise to significant issues of principle and to substantial practical problems.

By virtue of their religious status, faith-based organisations are exempt from aspects of equality legislation; consequently they can discriminate in the provision of services and employment. Where public services are contracted to religious groups, there is a particular risk that a formerly universally accessible public service will fall out-of-reach of some members of the community. See our pages on Public Service Reform for more details.

As the government’s localism agenda currently stands, there are no mechanisms in place to ensure that public services, communities policies or even the ‘Big Society’ are to be free from religious privilege or discrimination by religious groups in the provision of public services.

What are we doing?

The BHA is working independently and with our supporters in parliament, as well as individuals and organisations from across the equalities field, to develop policy and to lobby government and other decision makers on these issues.

We’ve recently given written evidence to parliament’s Public Administration Select Committee’s inquiry into the Big Society. Click here for a transcript and video of our evidence.

Read our briefings on equality in commissioning and on the Localism Bill.