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Public service reform

We want inclusive, accessible public services without any identification with particular religions or beliefs and with no discrimination in employment or service delivery, and human rights protection for service users.

We are concerned that this is increasingly not the case, as more and more contracts are awarded by local and national government to religious groups that are able to discriminate against employees and service users whilst fulfilling the contracts in question. We believe equality and human rights legislation needs amending to end the exemptions that make such discrimination possible.

In depth

Across-the-board, publicly funded, comprehensive and statutory public services, to which all citizens have an entitlement, are in the process of extensive and significant reform. Government is introducing new suppliers of public services by placing contracts with private and voluntary and community sector organisations. The great majority of public service provision has hitherto been in the hands of secular bodies (public or through contractors), and there is no evidence that the public is dissatisfied with this. On the other hand, the main example of non-secular public service provision is state-funded religious schools, to which as many as four out of five people are hostile. However, as part of its marketisation of public services such as the welfare and employment, health, social care and housing services, the Government has been promoting the specific inclusion of religious organisations as providers, in particular at local level.

Religious organisations have important exemptions from the Equality Act 2010 allowing them to discriminate in various ways even when working under contract to provide a public service. For example, the exemptions from employment equality legislation allow religious employers to discriminate against potential applicants for jobs on grounds of religion or belief and of sexual orientation, and to discriminate against current employees on those same grounds in ways such as barring them from promotion or dismissing them.

In addition, citizens whose services are delivered by private or charitable organisations, many of the latter religious, working under contract for a public authority do not have the protection of the Human Rights Act. This is in spite of the fact that it is pure chance that they may receive their services from such a contractor and not directly from the public authority, itself automatically subject to the Act. Religious organisations appear to be particularly resistant to having public authority status extended to them, since they wish to maintain their right to discriminate in the name of their religious ethos.

We believe that such a policy gives rise to significant issues of principle and to substantial practical problems. Not only does having religious organisations providing public services on behalf of the state put at severe risk the secular nature of those services, but there are problems related specifically to contracting to such organisations:

  • discrimination against employees of no, or another, religion – including public sector workers who have been transferred to a religious employer
  • unfair promotion prospects for those of the ‘right’ religion
  • discrimination against service users of no or another religion and reduced rights for service users
  • discrimination against LGBT people whether employees or service users
  • religious harassment
  • artificial boosting with public funds of the prestige and strength of religious organisations
  • uneconomic duplication of services
  • divisive effects on the community with implications for social cohesion and equality.

We believe that the problems associated with having religious organisations as public service suppliers and providers are so varied and so great, that it is our firm view that no publicly-funded, comprehensive and statutory public service, to which all citizens have an entitlement, should be contracted out to a religious organisation until the law has been changed to protect service users and employees from discrimination.

If religious organisations are to supply and deliver public services, government must take a number of steps to address the problems that will inevitably arise:

  • we want the Human Rights Act amended to treat religious contractors delivering general public services on behalf of a public authority to be treated themselves as public authorities
  • we want the Equality Act 2010 to be amended and Northern Ireland equality legislation to suspend the exemptions for religious groups when they are working under public contract on behalf of the state
  • until such time as legislation is amended, we want all contracts with religious groups to provide public services to include equality, non-discrimination and non-proselytising clauses
  • we want all public authorities to maintain a public record of contracts with religious groups and to set appropriate contractual and monitoring systems in place to prevent discrimination in employment or provision of services
  • we want government to set in place appropriate measures to assist public authorities in identifying and excluding groups with extreme agendas that may bid to take on public services contracts.

What we’re doing

In November 2007, we published our report on the contracting out of public services to religious organisations, Quality and Equality: Human Rights, Public Services and Religious Organisations, which discusses and sets out in detail our position and our recommendations aimed to mitigate the problems we have identified with that Government policy. Our proposals aim to ensure that if religious organisations are to be included in the supply and delivery of public services, they:

  • cannot discriminate between service users on grounds of ‘religion or belief’, or on any other grounds;
  • must respect the human rights of service users;
  • have equality-based employment policies, so that no one is privileged for a position because of her/his religion or belief, her/his sexual orientation, or on any other irrelevant ground.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has also set out its concerns to government and others about the issues specific to the contracting out of public services to religious organisations. Most recently, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) has made clear in its own policy that religious organisations must operate to the same high standards as other public service providers, and be non-discriminatory and totally inclusive in terms of their staffing and their delivery – or not be awarded a contract if they do not wish to.

Since then we have been campaigning on the basis of the proposals in our report, including by: lobbying the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and the Government about getting rid of the exemptions currently afforded to religious organisations, particularly in the context of the Equality Act 2010; in 2008, supporting a claimant in a landmark religious discrimination employment tribunal; working with parliamentarians to amend the Human Rights Act 1998 to ensure that all service users are covered by it, no matter who their provider is; advising on contractual stipulations to ensure that contracted providers cannot discriminate in employment or against service users; and working in collaboration with other organisations to raise awareness of the issues and seek new ways to campaign for inclusive, secular public services.

We have also been highlighting specific examples of contracts being given to religious groups, such as the national contract for providing services to trafficked women being given to the evangelical Salvation Army, which regards homosexuality as ‘self evidently abnormal’, and says that lesbian and gay people should be celibate; and Richmond Council awarding its children’s counselling contract to the anti-LGBT Catholic Children’s Society. And in 2015, we submitted evidence to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s review of the place of religion and belief in the workplace, with the subsequent evidence finding many complaining about ‘unwelcome “preaching” or proselytising, and the expression of views that were hurtful or derogatory towards other faiths and/or towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people’ – including in public service provision.

Get involved

Watch out for local (and national!) initiatives under which public services are already delivered by religious organisations or it is proposed that they should be. Find out about them and get in touch.

You can email your MP to raise your concerns about the UK Government’s plans to contract out services to religious organisations and asking them to support Humanists UK campaign.

Watch for advertisements for posts restricted to believers in a particular religion and let us know of them.

You can support Humanists UK by becoming a member. That helps in itself, and you can help even more by supporting our campaigns in the ways suggested above. But campaigns also cost money – quite a lot of money – and we also need financial support. You can make a donation to Humanists UK.

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