MPs debate contribution of faith organisations to voluntary sector in local communities – transcript

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Voluntary Sector: Faith Organisations

05 May 2016 11.08 am

BruceFiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con)

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the contribution of faith organisations to the voluntary sector in local communities.

Christians possess a rich heritage of social reform and charitable care which is alive today. In the 19th century, William Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury led campaigns for the abolition of slavery and child labour. Others, such as Barnardo and William and Catherine Booth, were involved in founding charitable organisations, covering every conceivable form of human need, as an expression of Christian love. The Christian principles that drove Wilberforce and Shaftesbury are still very much alive in Britain today and are as relevant as ever.

The Evangelical Alliance, the largest and oldest body representing evangelical Christians in the UK, estimates that there are more than 2 million evangelicals in the UK. This is an increasingly diverse constituency, including 500,000 Christians from black majority churches and, more widely, over 1 million UK Christians from black, Asian and other minority ethnic communities.

To clarify, I shall speak mainly about the contribution of Christian communities, as those are the ones I know best. I am sure that other hon. Members will speak about the contribution of other faiths to our local communities.

The 2014 national church and social action survey listed the top 10 activities of churches sampled as involving: food distribution; parent and toddler groups; school assemblies and religious education work; festivals and fun days; children’s clubs for those aged up to 11; caring for the elderly; debt counselling; youth work for those aged 12 to 18; cafés that are open to the public; and marriage counselling courses. Every one of these activities takes place in my constituency, most multiple times. The tremendous work done by church members in my constituency is, I am sure, representative of that taking place across the country, often in the toughest and most challenging situations and areas. I am talking about street pastors helping the homeless at night; addiction support; job clubs, which are particularly successful in New Life church in my constituency; helping victims of human trafficking; supporting children with special needs; prison visiting; literacy projects; fostering and adoption support; and getting alongside those with mental health problems.

DaviesPhilip Davies (Shipley) (Con) I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. To add to her list, over Christmas when we had terrible floods in Yorkshire, some of the people who helped the most in our communities were from faith-based organisations. I should particularly mention the Salvation Army and the mosques in Bradford; people from them came over to my constituency to help with the clear-up operation. They play a vital role when there is an emergency such as flooding.

BruceFiona Bruce My hon. Friend is quite right, and indeed the Brethren also play a vital role in disaster relief support. The value of these activities to society is vast. They represent a glue that holds together the fabric of our communities, particularly in many needy places. Indeed, I have heard it said that youth work in this country would collapse without the churches’ involvement. Toddlers might miss out on the developmental benefits of playing with others at a vital age, and their mothers—particularly young mums—would miss out on relationship building and support. Cafés provide not only nutritious, wholesome and economical meals in pleasant surroundings, but a place with a listening ear for the vulnerable, the lonely and the low.

Marriage counselling services invest in families and stable homes, which we know bring massive benefits to society, in terms of children’s mental health and educational attainment. When things go wrong, there is a great emotional cost to families and society. In fact, the Marriage Foundation has estimated that the cost of family breakdown is greater than the entire defence budget. That shows the invaluable contribution that strengthening family life can make to our society.

On caring for the elderly, we know what a strain our social services are under, caring for an ageing population and providing them with dignity, when families are often at a distance. It is so often the church that fills the gap when things do not work out as intended. Faith-based organisations and charities often go the extra mile in ensuring that someone is seen, remembered and reassured. They often provide bereavement support, too.

Faith groups and churches are doing vital work on debt counselling, helping individuals to best manage their finances. We know the cost of spiralling debt: it can lead to family breakdown, emotional heartache and misery for many. I commend the work of Christians Against Poverty, which works with the whole person to provide a range of services for those in debt, without any public funding. It was recently named debt advice provider of the year at an industry awards ceremony.

I can confidently say that most of these services are provided without public funding. Where public funding is obtained, the value for money is outstanding. To speak for a moment in monetary terms, a recent report by the Cinnamon Network, the “Cinnamon Faith Action Audit”, estimates that collectively, the Church provides over £3 billion of social support to UK society. It also found that faith groups deliver 220,000 social action projects, serve 48 million beneficiaries, and mobilise 2 million volunteers. The Church may not be perfect, but without her, society would certainly notice a difference.

Research by the Evangelical Alliance found that 81% of evangelical Christians do some form of voluntary work, serving in the wider community with their church at least once a year, and 37% do so at least once a week. At the recent mayoral hustings for churches in London, the Church of England was quoted as having three times as many outlets in the capital as Starbucks. My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) said in his remarks at the end of the debate:

“The Evangelical Alliance is part of the Big Society, on the front line tackling crime, on the front line tackling homelessness, and so many other of the challenges London is facing.”

That is so true. I shall now refer to other quotes from both individuals and organisations, including one from the Prime Minister who said:

“I’m an unapologetic supporter of the role of faith in this country…Across the country, we have tens of thousands of fantastic faith-based charities. Every day they’re performing minor miracles in local communities. As Prime Minister, I’ve worked hard to stand up for these charities and give them more power and support. If my party continues in government, it’s our ambition to do even more.”

I was very pleased indeed to hear that. Similarly, several local authorities have spoken positively of the contribution that church groups make to our local communities, many of them speaking of the fact that they are closely embedded and close to the grassroots of their communities. They speak of their continuing involvement in local communities, which is so important.

Today is an election day. Political parties will come and go when it comes to their authorities in our communities, but the Churches will be there enduring—this century, as they did last century and for centuries before. That is why it is so important that we support them in the way that we need to.

Sir Simon Burns (Chelmsford) (Con) Does my hon. Friend accept that these Burnsfaith groups are the unsung heroes of society, who—day in, day out—selflessly look after others and provide help within our communities without looking for any thanks whatever, doing so purely for the satisfaction of being able to help people less fortunate than ourselves?

BruceFiona Bruce I absolutely agree and thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention.

Churches across the country are not just buildings that bring people together; they are made up of people of all ages, of all political persuasions, the well-off and the not so well-off who, compelled by compassion, work—day in, day out—alongside some of the most vulnerable on our streets and estates to support our local communities.

Local authorities, however, would do well to improve their understanding of what faith groups do and the way that they work. I believe this has improved over recent years, but I still think more could be done. During the last Parliament, the all-party Christian group produced a report that dealt with this issue. Some of its recommendations still stand today. Local authorities have been concerned about, for want of a better word, the “motivation” of faith groups, while faith groups themselves often have a limited understanding of how local government works and the language required to engage with it.

Guidance from central Government on how to improve these relations and how to improve religious literacy on the part of all of us working in our local communities would be helpful. Steps should be taken to help us all understand the diversity of beliefs in today’s United Kingdom—a key factor in strengthening civil society and promoting community cohesion, stability and resilience. Also helpful would be an approach by local authorities to provide what has been termed “reasonable accommodation” of religion and belief, wherever possible.

Faith groups do not expect funding for what is often called “proselytisation”, but they do ask to be free to be open about their beliefs and values. If, for example, a conversation starts naturally during voluntary work, it is not unreasonable to be allowed to continue it, particularly if it was initiated by those who are being helped. It is, after all, their faith that motivates religious people to work in their local communities in the first place. An approach should be adopted that allows faith groups to be open about their beliefs and values and the practices they encourage rather than promoting a privatisation of belief. This would provide for authentic religious expression.

Many Christians, in particular, are deeply concerned about their religious liberty and freedom of expression. Not so long ago, the Evangelical Alliance conducted a poll, and 97% of those who responded said that

“policies which ensure religious liberty and freedom of expression were important to them”,

and 71%—1.3 million people—said that it would affect their votes. That is almost an election-shifting number. Of all the concerns that were highlighted in the poll, that was the one that mattered most to Christians, even more than issues such as euthanasia and policies to reduce the availability of pornography. The Government would do well to note that.

Many of the recommendations contained in the Christians in Parliament report “Faith in the Community”, produced in 2013, remain relevant today. Only last week, the Oasis Foundation published a report entitled “Faith in Public Service—The Role of the Church in Public Service Delivery”. Time prohibits me from quoting from it in as much detail as I should like, but I do want to quote from one or two sections. For instance, the report stated:

“Local authorities…have yet to grasp the opportunities for engagement with the voluntary sector”.

That, I think, is very relevant to the work of the churches, which is what the report was highlighting. It also stated that

“the Church possesses…An unparalleled reach and volunteer membership…A sense of ‘place’ both in terms of physical presence and as a bridge into local communities…A traditional and largely accepted…role in community cohesion and regeneration…The ability to deliver locally-specific integrated services, tailored to individual needs, with both personality and precision. These strengths have enabled individual churches around the country to engage confidently in the delivery of…important projects that have benefited their local communities. Research commissioned for this report finds that churches feel confident in that delivery and the public feels confident in the competency and abilities of church groups to deliver those services.”

I pay tribute to organisations such as the Cinnamon Network, the Street Pastors, the Trussell Trust and Christians Against Poverty, all of which have done important work in encouraging that level of confidence. They have rolled out programmes that churches have been able to adopt, knowing that they will be successful and effective. However, according to the 2013 report,

“There remains a perception on the part of local authorities and the public that faith organisations will be conditional in who they deliver services to and that they will seek to proselytise…that fear is more one of perception than reality”.

I ask Ministers to think about how we can get the balance right, ensuring that there is the freedom of religion that is so yearned for by people of faith while also ensuring that local church groups are confident that they can engage with local authorities, that the expression of their faith will be accepted and understood, and that they are able to exhibit it freely. We can all do more in that regard.

Let me make one more point before I end my speech. A great many organisations and volunteers are concerned about a proposal, on which consultation took place a few months ago, for Ofsted inspectors to regulate and inspect out-of-school activities among young people that take up more than six hours a week. Earlier this year, the Schools Minister told us that there had been more than 10,000 responses to that proposal, although the consultation had taken place over the Christmas period. It is proposed that if members of a Christian youth group engage in sport or games on one day a week, or meet on one evening a week and, perhaps, on Sundays to discuss their faith, Ofsted inspectors can visit them to establish whether their activities are compatible with a list of British values drawn up by the Government to find out whether they are extremist. Could any of the types of work that I have described today be described as extremist? Actually, perhaps they could, because of their love, care and concern for the most vulnerable and needy in our society. However, I submit that there is nothing less British than the Government restricting the expression of religious faith based on an arbitrary set of values drawn up in Whitehall. That is the very opposite of what I understand conservatism to be.

Ofsted inspectors are unlikely to be looking for illegal activities. They will be looking for activities that fit into a vaguely defined list of sentiments such as non-violent extremism. This was criticised only yesterday at the Joint Committee on Human Rights—a Committee of both Houses on which I sit—as being an impossibly vague definition. It is not clear what the list of British values actually involves. There have been countless statements on the matter from Government Ministers, including the Prime Minister, and a number of uses of it in regulations. If the Government do not have a clear idea of what these values are, how can anyone else do so? As we in this House should be well aware, vague laws and vague policies are a breeding ground for abuse and misapplication.

There is grave concern on the part of many Christians across the country about these proposals, and rightly so. A witness who appeared before the Joint Committee yesterday told us that the proposals could deter volunteerism. That is by no means the first time we have heard that opinion being expressed, including by many faith organisations. Many small immensely valuable initiatives fear that if they use the wrong word or if their words or phrases are misinterpreted, they will come under unfair scrutiny from inspectors, whose job is to inspect schools.

DoubleSteve Double (St Austell and Newquay) (Con) Does my hon. Friend agree that concerns have also been expressed by teachers? Many of the volunteers who work in Sunday schools and other youth organisations are teachers, and they are afraid about possible damage to their professional reputation following an Ofsted inspection. This could well result in their withdrawing from such work, which would be hugely damaging to those organisations.

BruceFiona Bruce I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that teachers are concerned about their professional reputations and even about their jobs. Ofsted’s job is to inspect educational standards in schools, not to make ideological judgments about church youth groups or any other voluntary initiatives. Professor Julian Rivers told us in his evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights that the proposal could well be in breach of the European convention on human rights because even the registration—let alone the inspection—would restrict the free exercise of religion. A joint statement made last month by several national organisations representing millions of Christians said of the proposals that

“the scope for vexatious complaints is considerable, especially in the current climate of aggressive secularism and religious illiteracy.”

That is something that I mentioned earlier. The statement went on:

“Whilst Christians wholeheartedly support reasonable measures to prevent terrorism and violent extremism, these proposals will lead to a loss of civil liberties and create a large bureaucracy that will divert resources away from restraining extremists who reject UK law. Such individuals will simply ignore or effortlessly circumvent the registration requirements. We urge the government to drop these proposals and develop a targeted, intelligence-led approach that will genuinely inhibit the activities of violent extremists.”

I ask the Minister to consider this and supply a response to these concerns, perhaps not in this debate but later.

I should like to give the House an example of an organisation that is concerned about the proposals. Christian Camping International UK provides in excess of 30,000 children and young people with more than 500 events across more than 250 venues. They are experts in this sector. My own boys have benefited from camping holidays run by faith groups. The organisation has listed a number of potential unintended consequences from the proposals. It says:

“Much of the activity referred to above is dependent on a large number of volunteers. Finding volunteers is a constant issue and the Government should be aware that increasing the level of bureaucracy involved in providing such events will only exacerbate the difficulty.”

The organisation points out that it is already regulated in a number of ways, including under charity laws and regulations and safeguarding regulations, and through the Disclosure and Barring Service. It says that

“there are no examples of such Christian ministries in the UK teaching extremism, nor encouraging young people to celebrate terrorism or become terrorists…The proposals have the potential both to overload the sector with more costs and red tape…which the Government seems to have radically underestimated”.

I ask the Minister to respond to that.

The Government have begun to roll back on some of the proposals put out in the consultation document. Earlier this year, the Minister for Schools said that one-off residential activities would not be included, and we have had an indication that Sunday schools would also not be included. While I welcome those intentions, I point out again to the Government that the proposals have severe issues that run far deeper than those few qualifications can address.

BercowMr Speaker

Has the hon. Lady concluded her speech?

Fiona Bruce I am conscious that it is important not to take more than a fair amount of time. There is much more that I could say on the issue, but I believe that I have made the important points.

Mr Speaker Thank you. I was merely asking.

11.30 am

TimmsStephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab) I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing this debate. She has certainly kept the Backbench Business Committee busy in recent weeks and to great effect, not least on this occasion. I agree with everything she said, including her apposite criticism of the Government’s dreadful proposal to in effect turn Ofsted into a state regulator of religion. I hope that her criticisms will be heeded by the Minister and that the proposal will be abandoned in due course.

I hope that this debate will achieve two things. First, I hope it will draw attention to the extraordinary scale and importance of the contributions made by faith-based organisations to communities up and down the country. The hon. Lady set out well the breadth of what is being done. Secondly, I hope that the debate will allow us to consider a specific proposal made by the all-party parliamentary group for faith and society, which I chair, to ease the constraints that currently hold back faith-based organisations when they seek to work with both national and local government. I will set out that proposal and I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to it.

There is undoubtedly a new movement of faith-based social activism in Britain today. Its significance has not yet been fully understood or acknowledged, but at a time when some people argue that religious faith is on the way out, there is no doubt that the movement is making a growing and immensely positive contribution to our society. The movement is one of the most hopeful developments around.

I chaired the advisory group for a report by the think-tank Demos called “Exploring the role of faith in British society and politics…”. It was published in 2013 and is available on the Demos website. The researchers analysed the UK findings of the European Values Study, a regular, highly regarded pan-European survey, and found that about one in eight people in Britain say when asked, “I belong to a religious organisation.” Demos cross-tabulated that with participation in volunteering, and the analysis showed that people who say that they belong to a religious organisation are far more likely to volunteer than others. More than that, it showed that for quite a number of the types of volunteering examined, including volunteering for a trade union, on local community action, on women’s issues, on international development and on human rights, the one in eight who belong to a religious organisation account for a larger number of volunteers than the entire seven in eight who do not. That tells us something important and surprising—perhaps even rather unsettling for some—about where the capacity to change things for the better can be found in modern Britain.

The most striking example, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Congleton, has been the food bank phenomenon. If we had speculated 10 years ago about what would happen if tens of thousands of people were suddenly, following changes of Government policy, unable to afford enough food for themselves and their families, I certainly would not have predicted that the faith groups would have been the ones to step up to meet the need. That, however, is what has happened. The 400-plus food banks organised by the Trussell Trust have provided food for more than half a million households in the past year, giving, on average, just over two lots of three-day emergency food supplies to each of them. Every one of those food banks is based on a Church. Islamic Relief has organised in a number of areas in the mosques to collect food in support of those food banks, too. It has turned out that in 21st century Britain it has been the Churches, uniquely, that have had both the motivation to tackle this problem, which has erupted so quickly, and, perhaps more surprisingly, the capacity and the resources to take it on. Nobody else has been able to do that, but the faith groups have. That again tells us something very important about the realities in Britain today and where the potential for changing things for the better resides.

One striking example of this new movement of faith-based social activism, and a very distinctive element in the voluntary sector we are reflecting on in this debate, is London Citizens. It is made up of churches, mosques, a synagogue, schools, trade union branches and community organisations, and it campaigns on issues that the members collectively agree are pressing in their community. For example, it has campaigned in favour of a living wage at a higher level than the statutory minimum wage, with the aim of making life easier for the lowest-paid workers. That specific initiative taken by London Citizens lies behind the Government’s national living wage initiative. Its campaigning, of which that is an example, has had a remarkable impact, and there is no doubt that the faith commitment of the Muslims, the Christians and others of faith involved in London Citizens has been key in its work. Last week, it gathered 6,000 people at the Copper Box on the Olympic park for its accountability assembly with the two main candidates for today’s elections for London Mayor.

Four years ago, we established, in the House, the all-party group on faith and society, which I chair. Its role is to support faith-based organisations in the contributions they are making to serve their communities, helping to make their contributions better understood and, where we can, to remove some of the barriers that hold them back. The secretariat of the all-party group is provided by FaithAction, which has a pioneering contract with the Department of Health, and I commend the leadership the Department has provided in acknowledging and supporting the contribution of faith-based organisations. That contract is to enable FaithAction to support faith-based health initiatives. Following its establishment, the all-party group held a series of meetings with representatives of faith-based organisations. We held one for organisations contributing to welfare to work; one on health and well-being; one on work with young people, recognising that most youth work in Britain today is undertaken by faith groups, as the hon Lady mentioned; and one on international aid and development.

The organisations we met included: the Sikh Nishkam Centre in Birmingham, where we discussed its work to support unemployed people into jobs; the Muslim-led Faith Regen Foundation, where we discussed its contribution to the Government’s Work programme; the Spear programme, based at St Paul’s church in Hammersmith, which is literally transforming the life chances of unemployed young people; the LifeLine Institute’s alternative school, run by the LifeLine church in Dagenham; the Faith, Relationships & Young People project, based in my borough of Newham; the Jewish Lads’ and Girls’ Brigade; the Hindu-led, Peepal Care; the Parish Nursing initiative; and Jewish Care, which provides outstanding residential care. Of the organisations that are focused overseas, we met Hindu-led Sewa International, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Sikh-led KhalsaAid and Muslim Aid. After those discussions and meetings, we reflected on what all the groups had said to us. A theme that emerged was that many organisations experienced a little bit of difficulty with their local authority—not so much with the members, or councillors, but with the officers.

Council officers frequently find it quite difficult to deal with faith. They are nervous that, if they deal with one faith group, they will find themselves, in fairness, having to deal with all the others, and who knows what that might amount to. They are a bit uneasy anyway that the people involved in these groups may be a little bit out of the ordinary. It just feels to them like quite dangerous territory, which it is probably easier to avoid altogether. Frankly, life would be much simpler if it were not necessary to deal with faith groups at all.

More substantially, local authorities are nervous that if they were to commission services from faith groups, one of two things would be likely to go wrong—either that public funds would be used to try to convert people rather than to deliver the service, or that there would be bias in delivering the service in favour of members of that faith group. The evidence—in so far as there is evidence—is that neither of those things happens in practice. The Demos report touches on that. In its conclusion, it says:

“We found little evidence to confirm critics’ fears about faith group service providers: that their main motivation is proselytising, they are exclusivist and they discriminate. Rather, faithful providers”—

that is the term that Demos uses for them—

“are highly motivated and effective, and often serve as the permanent and persistent pillars of community. Faith appears to be an effective motivator for community service providers, akin to the notion of a public sector ethos.”

That positive affirmation for those groups is correct, but, of course, it is not inconceivable that one of those concerns felt by local authority officers might, in a particular case, turn out to be well-founded. It is not inconceivable that one of those problems could arise.

The all-party group on faith and society decided to develop what we call a covenant—it was actually the suggestion of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy)—in the hope of building trust on both sides, between local councils on the one side and the faith-based organisations in their area on the other. The text of that covenant is on the website of the all-party group. Let me read the preamble to the covenant, because it explains what our intention is.

“The coming decade will see the country facing new social needs and tough new challenges. There will be fresh demands on public health, social care, education, employment support and community inclusion. These challenges will require the identification of a new set of resources. We will need to unlock the potential of every part of our society to contribute towards solutions. We believe that one important resource can be realised by supporting faith-based organisations to work with local authorities constructively and effectively, as part of civil society. That will mean ensuring that local authorities are confident in commissioning services from, and transferring assets to, appropriately qualified faith-based organisations, and that they include faith groups when they look for solutions to social needs.

The APPG on Faith and Society is convinced that faith groups have a great deal to offer as providers and advocates for the communities in which they serve, and that some of their potential is being unnecessarily overlooked at present. To help tackle the problem, the Group has drafted a Covenant which can be adopted by faith groups and local authorities in cities across the UK. Together, local authorities and faith communities should work out a local version of the commitments below, according to the priorities and needs of that locality. The Covenant is a joint commitment between faith communities and local authorities to a set of principles that guide engagement, aiming to remove some of the mistrust that exists and to promote open, practical working on all levels.”

BruceFiona Bruce I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his work in the all-party group on faith and society, which he chairs, and for jointly securing this debate with me. He might not be aware, so I thought I would mention, that a report published by the Oasis Foundation last week, “Faith in Public Service”, highly commends the work of the all-party group and says:

“The Covenant which the APPG has developed in partnership with FaithAction provides a framework in which faith organisations can make explicit commitments to good practice, not least in terms of inclusion, while having their faith identities fully respected.”

The report states that a mere handful of localities

“have yet adopted the Government’s provisions”,

so it calls for

“greater national urgency in driving forward this…work, both from central government, through the Local Government Association and through national Church denominations.”

It argues that the Church could even develop a national inclusion charter and kitemark, based on the covenant, so that individual churches could signal to their local authorities and the public their commitment to inclusion. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with those recommendations?

TimmsStephen Timms I am grateful to the hon. Lady for drawing attention to what the Oasis Foundation has said. I was aware of that—I was going to refer to it later—and I very much appreciate it. It underlines the importance of making progress in this area.

I was pleased that the first local authority to sign up to the covenant, in December 2014, was the city of Birmingham, the biggest local authority in Europe. Like all local authorities, it faces an enormous challenge over the next few years, as big cuts in spending have to be made. Members of Birmingham City Council rightly concluded that working with faith groups could be one way to help them to get through. They might commission some services from faith groups, perhaps transfer some assets and buildings to faith groups, and ask them to run services—a variety of possibilities might be pursued.

BruceFiona Bruce May I commend an excellent initiative that Warrington Borough Council undertook with a group of people of faith? When the local library was to be closed, it was taken over by that group, which is now running it very successfully for the local community.

TimmsStephen Timms I believe that many such things will have to be done if services are to be maintained.

When our all-party group paid a visit to Birmingham, we visited the central mosque and the central synagogue. At the remarkable Sikh Nishkam Centre, where an enormous number of things are being done, we took part in a roundtable discussion hosted by the Bishop of Birmingham, David Urquhart. The faith group leaders in Birmingham have been meeting regularly ever since 9/11 and have a very good relationship, and the new partnership between the faith groups in the city and its civic leadership, signified by its signing up to the covenant, is blazing a trail that others will want to follow. The covenant has since been signed by several other local authorities in Leeds, Northamptonshire, Barnet, Solihull and, most recently, Calderdale.

It is difficult in such a debate to do more than scratch the surface of what is being delivered. The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) mentioned the Salvation Army. It has been providing community services for 150 years, especially to those who are vulnerable and marginalised, and today it says:

“Motivated by our Christian faith, we continue to offer local provision in over 700 centres throughout the UK to all who need them.”

A recent initiative has been #TOYOURCREDIT, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s task group on responsible credit and saving, which was launched in 2014. There has been a pilot in London and Liverpool, and you might remember, Mr Speaker, what the Archbishop had to say about Wonga when this all began.

The pilot in London and Liverpool has engaged more than 200 churches, trained 150 credit champions and is on target to bring in 3,000 new credit union members. The planned 18-month roll-out to 30 dioceses aims to benefit 2.5 million people. Next month is the first credit union month across the London diocese. I welcome the initiative of the Archbishop of Canterbury to host a celebration of positive grassroots action of faith communities at Lambeth Palace in a couple of weeks’ time, including a presentation from the Department for Communities and Local Government’s Near Neighbours initiative.

Like the hon. Member for Congleton, I commend the Cinnamon Network, which identifies successful and effective initiatives undertaken by a church in one area, and encourages the adoption of that idea on a franchise model by congregations elsewhere. I welcome, too, the important work of the Inter Faith Network and its director, Harriet Crabtree.

It is interesting to look at how such work is carried out in other countries. In Germany there is a formalised arrangement for the main Protestant and Catholic Churches to deliver some welfare services on behalf of the state. In 2009, in the USA, President Obama set up a diverse advisory council on faith-based and neighbourhood partnerships. He asked it to recommend how to strengthen the social partnerships between Government and non-Government providers, including how to strengthen their legal basis. That led to the publication at the end of March of Executive Order 13559 on fundamental principles and policy-making criteria for partnerships with faith-based and other neighbourhood organisations. The order makes it clear, rather as our covenant does, that faith-based organisations can participate in federally-funded social service programmes on the same basis as any other organisation, and it specifies, for example, as a condition of direct federal assistance that an organisation must not discriminate on the basis of religion, or require a beneficiary to attend or participate in any explicitly religious practice. Other points along those lines are also set out.

That executive order is 304 pages long and represents a very different approach in the USA from the light-touch voluntary covenant advocated by our all-party group. Nevertheless, looking at examples from other countries strengthens the case for a Government initiative in the UK.

The hon. Member for Congleton intervened a few minutes ago to draw attention to the Oasis Trust. That multi-academy trust is one of the biggest school providers in the country. The Oasis Foundation aims to carry out research in this area and to publish reports. As the hon. Lady noted, its first report, “Faith in Public Service”, points out correctly that the covenant that I have described has been taken up by only about half a dozen local authorities so far.

I commend to the Minister the report’s call that the Government, under the auspices of the Office for Civil Society, should

“articulate a clear strategy for national and local engagement with faith organisations, to include…sponsorship of the Covenant developed by the APPG on Faith and Society”,

and should offer further encouragement to local authorities to engage churches and church-based organisations in their commissioning decisions. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Anna Turley), who speaks for the Opposition on Office for Civil Society matters, is in the Chamber. I welcome the further endorsement of the covenant provided by the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, chaired by Baroness Butler-Sloss, in its comprehensive and thoughtful report “Living with Difference: Community, Diversity and the Common Good”, which was published last December with the support of the Woolf Institute of Cambridge.

I want to read part of a newspaper article that appeared some time ago. It was written by Neal Lawson of the think-tank Compass, and it is about the role of faith groups in our society. I will not quote much of it, because quite a large amount comprises criticism of people such as me who were Ministers in the last Labour Government. However, it goes on to say something about faith groups that I very much agree with:

“they don’t just talk. They do. Religious communities are among the increasingly few places that bring people together as citizens rather than as consumers—fighting for a living wage and against poverty.

For me, as an atheist and a full-time politico, this is unsettling…I am a secularist and believe in the disestablishment of church and state—in particular, I want to see the end of faith schools. And, of course, religion has been the cause of terrible deeds—although none perhaps in recent years as abhorrent as those of atheists. But in words and deeds, in the world I see around me, the positive role faith plays far outweighs the negatives.”

I think that that will be the view of a growing number of people—including, surprisingly, people such as the author of that article—as they look at what is happening in our society and think about where we can find signs of optimism and hope, as well as new ideas about changing things for the better.

I hope that, through this debate, we will be able to draw attention to the extraordinary scale, range and quality of the contributions that faith-based organisations make to communities up and down the country, and that the Minister will be able to acknowledge that contribution at the end of the debate. I also hope he will consider the proposal from the all-party group on faith and society that the covenant should be signed in local communities—by local councils and by the faith-based organisations wanting to be commissioned by them—to try to get over a number of the barriers that currently hold back some of the activity we have talked about.

11.57 am

LefroyJeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con) I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) on securing this incredibly important debate on voluntary organisations and faith groups. We should not forget that a tremendous number of people of faith also work in voluntary organisations that are not specifically faith based, so the work of people of faith extends far and wide—further perhaps than that of the organisations we are talking about today.

BruceFiona Bruce One excellent example from my constituency is the Middlewich Clean Team—more than 200 people from the Middlewich community who are out and about every weekend keeping Middlewich clean and tidy. The team welcomes members from all faiths and none, and it was initiated by a lady who, in prayer, sought something meaningful she could do for her community.

Jeremy Lefroy Every Member will probably see an example of that in their constituencies.

LefroyI do not want to go over all the things that have been mentioned in the two excellent speeches so far, but I do want to talk about a few organisations in my constituency, perhaps to draw some conclusions about how we go forward and to seek some guidance from the Minister.

In Stafford—as, I imagine, in most constituencies—we have faith groups running nurseries. We also have faith groups doing youth work. I am involved in that a little myself, and it gives me great pleasure, because it is a little outside the run of normal politics.

We also have the street pastors, who work right across the country. They do tremendous work, and I have been out with them a couple of times. I have seen what they do, in a very gentle way, to support and counsel people on the street, who are often in great distress. It is not easy work; they go out at 10 o’clock, often on a cold winter’s night, and they may be up until two or three in the morning. I have to say that I usually knock off earlier than the rest of the team, and I have great respect for their determination.

We have a children’s bereavement charity, which is so important for children who have lost loved ones, and which is run by people of faith. We have the Salvation Army and the Plymouth Brethren. We also have based in Stafford international faith-based voluntary organisations, the most notable of which is the Dalit Freedom Network, which seeks to work with organisations in India that support Dalit people and their rights.

We have an organisation called House of Bread that started up a few years ago. Last week I had the honour of being the speaker at its fundraiser, and it was wonderful to see how many people were there—how many people it is involved with—and the extent of its work. It started by providing a meal on a Wednesday evening to anybody who needed a hot meal, whom it invited to a building then owned by one of my local Anglican churches. The Wednesday meal has since gone around the town to various buildings, including Trinity Methodist church, as well as St Mary’s church. It even spent a year and a bit at the Stafford Conservative Association club because we believed it was so important to give a home to this wonderful work. It is now looking to secure its own premises, which is vital because it provides not only meals and food banks but all sorts of support work for people with addictions, as well as family support work.

Housing is an area in which Christian organisations, or faith-based organisations, were, traditionally, involved but tended not to be for many years and have now come back into it. Throughout this time, the YMCA has operated across the country. In my area it is YMCA North Staffordshire, based in Stoke-on-Trent but covering Stafford borough. It is doing tremendous work in providing homes for young people—perhaps a bedsit—as well as support and opportunities to get into work. It now wants to help them get out from the bedsit into their own home—a flat or a small house in the community—and be able to stand on their own two feet. I pay tribute to the work of YMCA North Staffordshire and its inspirational leader, Danny Flynn, who is a great friend of mine, and who has done a tremendous amount for young people throughout north Staffordshire, as have his whole team. The fact that the number of staff has almost trebled in the past five or six years shows how these organisations can grow. They have managed to build nearly 100 units for young people at a time when funding has not been that easy. I also pay tribute to the organisations of other faiths that provide services within my community, whether Sikh, Muslim or Hindu, and particularly to Hifsa Iqbal, who is always trying to work on behalf of people of all faiths and none from within her community.

I would like to raise four points, starting with funding, because that is probably the most discussed. We need funding arrangements that are not short term. When there is an arrangement between the voluntary sector and the public sector, within the voluntary sector, or between the voluntary sector and the private sector, the key thing is the consistency of a long-term approach. The last thing we want is for money suddenly to be made available and then, just as quickly, for it to be pulled and the service to be discontinued. It is almost harder and more heart-breaking to a see a service stop suddenly and people left without it than it not to start in the first place.

BruceFiona Bruce My hon. Friend raises the critical issue of funding. Does he agree that it would be very helpful if local authorities offered faith-based organisations more proactive help with bid-writing, because navigating the thickets of complexity on these documents often dissuades them from even embarking on the process?

LefroyJeremy Lefroy I totally agree with that. I think we should be looking for funding that is available for many years, even if it is at a lower level and starts in a modest way, rather than writing a big bid. The tendency is to say, “Let’s bid for as much money as we can.” We get the money and the money is spent—it has to be spent within a fairly short period because of public accounting rules—and then there is nothing, and no provision has been made for the continuation of that service.

BruceFiona Bruce Does my hon. Friend agree, therefore, that it would also be helpful if, for national initiatives such as the Trussell Trust, Street Pastors or CAP job clubs, local authorities agreed a nationally accepted and very simplified form of application?

LefroyJeremy Lefroy I am always in favour of cutting red tape and of simplification, but let us look long term. Let us look not for one or two-year contracts but for five-year programmes. Of course, there has to be quality assurance, and if a programme is going off track, it needs to be looked at.

On funding, I also want to mention the local housing allowance, particularly when it comes to housing support. I know that the Government are looking carefully at this, but it will be a big issue if the cost of support—particularly for young people, but for vulnerable people of all ages—is included in the local housing allowance assessment, and therefore the contributions cover only rent and not the cost of support. Unless we sort that out, quite a lot of programmes will close in the coming years, because it will not be possible to run them within the local housing allowance framework unless the support element is removed from that.

My second point is about co-operation, which has been addressed at some length and very well. I pay tribute to local authorities generally, and certainly to my own local authorities Stafford Borough Council, Staffordshire County Council and South Staffordshire District Council. They are never afraid to work together with faith organisations, and they are very practical about that. That goes for both the elected members and the officers. Of course, some people are a bit nervous about it, as the right hon. Member for East Ham has said, but in general I have found people to be positive. That has probably improved over the last 10 years since I was in local government.

BruceFiona Bruce Does my hon. Friend think that much of the reluctance to engage is on the part of the faith-based organisations, which have misconceptions about how they will be received when they do so?

LefroyJeremy Lefroy That is a very good point, and that may well be the case. Sometimes in faith-based organisations we are a little bit reticent. We do not want to appear to be thrusting ourselves on an unwilling local authority, even though there may actually be a great willingness in the local authority to work together.

My third point is about training and support. We are talking about people giving up an awful lot of their time. In some cases, they are really passionate about something but they need training to enable them to be most effective. Although I am not asking for large sums of money for training or support, perhaps we need to ensure that all proposed programmes contain a training element, because volunteers really appreciate that. Often, such training is done within the programme. Street Pastors has excellent training programmes, as do most other organisations. Such training is necessary; without it, people may soon feel out of their depth and become discouraged, which may make them less able or willing to volunteer. We must recognise that these programmes are not for the short term. People often give up years—sometimes decades—of their life for such programmes, and they need to be supported with refresher courses as well as initial training.

Finally, as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton has so eloquently put it, we need to allow these organisations space to be who they are. They are faith organisations and people who work in them have faith, so they must not be afraid to show that faith in an appropriate way. We cannot expect them to deny the source of their motivation.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this subject, and I ask the Minister to touch on some of the points I have raised. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton and the right hon. Member for East Ham for bringing such an important subject forward for discussion today.

12.09 pm

DoubleSteve Double (St Austell and Newquay) (Con) I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) on securing a debate on such an important subject, and it is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy).

I will talk about a number of things, but I first want to state that I have a great deal of experience in this regard, as hon. Members will know. I was born into a family whose members have devoted their lives to Christian service in running several Christian charities and, indeed, churches. That has been my experience for my whole life, and I speak as someone from that background.

There is no doubt that faith-based organisations play a very significant role in our local communities up and down the country. The vast majority of those involved are volunteers, who freely give their time, their talent, their energy, their love and, very often, their money for the good of other people. As I say, they do so freely and willingly. As we have heard, they do so in the vast number of food banks that have sprung up throughout our country to meet a very important need in our communities; in the pre-schools or youth clubs that are run by Churches and other faith organisations to provide such vital services to families and our young people; in the groups that provide meals and shelter for the homeless, the elderly or the lonely; or organisations working with ex-offenders and those suffering from addiction and, as has been mentioned, the street pastors who go out in our towns and cities to provide a very important service at weekends. They all provide vital services in supporting some of the most vulnerable and needy people in our country.

Back in 2014, a report commissioned in Cornwall sought to put a value on the amount of time given by volunteers from Churches and other faith-based organisations. The report came up with a figure of £20 million every year for the value of the time given by volunteers from Churches in Cornwall, which has a relatively small population. If that was reflected across the whole country, the amount contributed by such volunteers to our country would be several billion pounds a year. I should say that that figure was based just on measuring the contribution of Christian Churches, but many other faith organisations also contribute significantly to our communities up and down the country. We are therefore talking about groups of people who make a very significant contribution to our society, and they should be respected for that.

It is clear that people of faith make such a contribution across the country, but this is not a new trend; it has gone on throughout the history of our nation. Our very nation has been shaped throughout our history by great men and women of faith who have stood up to be counted and who have broken new ground, such as Wilberforce in abolishing slavery, Florence Nightingale in nursing injured soldiers, the Rev. Chad Varah in founding the Samaritans or, more recently, the street pastors. Throughout our history, people of faith have brought change and reform to our society, and it is very much because of their faith that they have carried out such work.

BruceFiona Bruce Will my hon. Friend join me in commending Marriage Care for the work it does? It provides relationship counselling and marriage preparation classes across local communities in England and Wales, with 600 trained volunteers. It was founded 70 years ago, after the war, to help ex-servicemen and their families to rebuild their relationships.

DoubleSteve Double I am happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating that group. The Church and other faith groups can make a huge contribution to our society in supporting marriage and the family in general. Family breakdown is the cause of many of the challenges and difficulties that our communities face, so the more that families can be supported, the better it will be for our communities. The Church has a very important role to play in doing just that.

The Church can and should be proud of the contribution that it has made and continues to make to our society and our local communities. Often, the Church and other faith-based groups are best placed to meet and address the very real needs that our communities face. They are often very close to or embedded in those communities, and are aware of communities’ needs from a place of involvement. They are often flexible and adaptable, and are able to respond quickly when a need arises—we heard earlier about faith groups responding very quickly to crises such as flooding. They are also very practical. They go right to the point of need, rather than getting caught up in process and bureaucracy. They can see the needs that people face and respond quickly and practically to meet them.

It is also pleasing that we have a Prime Minister who is not afraid to acknowledge the work of the Church and other faith groups in our country. It is pleasing to hear him stand up in this House and declare that we are a Christian nation, and that it is our Christian heritage and the values it has given to our country that have made us the great country that we indeed are. He also actively supports the Church, other Christian organisations and other faith groups in their vital work. It is incredible that, in the 21st century, we have a Prime Minister who is not afraid to stand up and make statements like that, including in this very Chamber. We should be thankful that he is prepared to do so; it is quite refreshing, especially in an age when the Church is increasingly marginalised and is even sneered at in some quarters for its work.

Christians often feel that they need to play down their faith when they volunteer or are carrying out the work that they do. That is deeply regrettable. It is their faith that motivates them, so to find that they have to apologise for or in some way play down the role it plays in the work that they do is deeply concerning.

BruceFiona Bruce Will my hon. Friend join me in extending deep appreciation to Her Majesty the Queen, who has made it clear in a number of her Christmas broadcasts that her own deep personal faith has sustained and motivated her in her great sense of duty towards her citizens over so many decades?

DoubleSteve Double I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. Her Majesty the Queen is a shining example of someone of deep faith and conviction who has given her whole life to the service of our country and is prepared to acknowledge her faith and say that it is one of the reasons why she has been the person whom we all love and respect. We should be very grateful for that.

We often find that the place of Christians and the Church in our society is being eroded and undermined. There is a growing feeling that the work of the Church and its freedom to stand up for what it believes to be right and true are under attack. I have stated in debates elsewhere in this House that I believe that we have surrendered too much of our liberty in the name of equality. The Christian Church has often felt the brunt of that erosion of freedom of speech. We should never be afraid to make the connection between the excellent work that the Church, Christian organisations and other faith groups carry out in our society and the deep faith and conviction that motivate them to do that work.

I put on record that I believe we should show our great gratitude to the many thousands of men and women of faith who work tirelessly and give of themselves for the good of others in many of our communities. It is right that today we show our appreciation of everything that they do. We should also celebrate and value the work of the Church, but we should not seek to restrict the freedom to exercise faith. Hon. Members have already touched on the proposal to force Sunday school and other Church groups to register with Ofsted, and I am already on record as describing that as a deeply regrettable move. I hope that the Government will drop that proposal. We should not seek to restrict further the work of the Church: we should seek to do all we can to encourage it, support it and help it to do more of the excellent work that it does.

I hope that the Minister will clearly state that our country needs the Church and faith organisations. They often carry out work that the state is not able to do, and if they did not do that work it would place an even greater burden on the state and public finances. The work of the Church and faith groups is therefore very necessary and we should do all we can to encourage and support them in that vital work. I hope we can send a strong message from the Chamber today that we are grateful for the work that men and women of faith do, and that we will do all we can to help, encourage and support them in doing it.

12.21 pm

TurleyAnna Turley (Redcar) (Lab/Co-op) I join those who have thanked the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) for bringing forward today’s debate on an issue of real importance. I also wish to place on record my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee, which plays an important role in the democracy of this place and the ability of hon. Members to give voice to issues that may not be urgent, have a high profile or be raised on the “Today” programme, but are none the less important to the fabric of our society and deserve time in the Chamber. Today’s debate is an example of just such an issue.

Some really interesting points have been made and valuable experience relayed by hon. Members today. The hon. Member for Congleton gave a real sense of the breadth of the services and support provided by faith communities from cradle to grave. I was struck by some of the examples she gave, especially on early intervention and groups that support people before they get into crisis and the state has to intervene, often at great expense. Those groups are there to prevent that. As the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) mentioned, they often save the state money and do things that the state would not be able to do. They play a huge role.

The hon. Lady also mentioned extremism, in the context of Ofsted, which is an issue of grave concern to many civil society and faith groups. Some analysis in The Guardian showed that more than a quarter of the statutory investigations launched by the Charity Commission since 2012 have been directed at Muslim charities associated with running mosques, providing humanitarian relief or undertaking aid efforts in Syria. Of course we have to be vigilant and no one would want to see a single penny devoted to terrorism or those forces that we are trying to tackle here and abroad, but our counterterrorism strategy has to have support from, and integration and communication with, civil society and faith groups at its heart. We must not alienate communities further, and I look forward to working with the Minister with responsibility for civil society and the Charity Commission to ensure that we do not tip the balance too far the other way.

My right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham raised some interesting issues. He mentioned the Trussell Trust and I was struck by how many faith groups are there in times of crisis. Sometimes we take it for granted that when the state has failed—and we in this place have failed—faith groups are there to pick up the pieces. I was struck by the examples he gave of what a powerful force multi-faith groups are, across the breadth of faith communities, when they come together. They are a real source of energy, determination, commitment and passion to build a better society. I am grateful to him for the examples he gave of where that is working. I will come on to mention the covenant, raised by the all-party group, later on in my speech. I give it my wholehearted support. I think it has huge potential for clarifying some of the misunderstandings and myths. I hope it will play a role in supporting faith groups to deliver more services.

The hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) mentioned some important points that affect a lot of civil society groups—not just faith-based groups— and they include the huge issue of long-term security of funding; training and support; and the space to be who they are, something that struck me in particular. Civil society groups play a different role from public services. They are not an arm or an agent of the state, but they are often able to do work that our public services cannot. They can respond quickly, be flexible and take risks. There are times when public services are not able to do that, and it is vital civil society is able to respond and react to problems.

The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay also raised a lot of interesting points. I was struck by the £20 million value put on the work of church groups in Cornwall—a huge contribution to local society, one that is reflected throughout the country. I join him in paying tribute to all the volunteers who give up so much time, effort and money to contribute to our society.

I want to continue my speech by sharing, as other hon. Members have, in the celebration of the role of faith groups in civil society. Indeed, throughout our history the role of faith and faith organisations has run through centuries of social progress: from before the Reformation, when religious duty meant Christians undertook their seven corporal works of mercy, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked or visiting the prisoner; the church parishes that administered the Elizabethan poor laws; to the work of Victorian Quakers, such as Rowntree, who studied and worked to remedy the destitution and slums of the industrial revolution. In recent years, it was the energy and imagination of faith groups that drove the Make Poverty History campaign and helped to ensure the Government’s commitment to international aid. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham mentioned London Citizens, a multi-faith organisation that has done so much to shape and drive the debate on the living wage. It has made a real difference to people’s lives. Today, we see many faith-based humanitarian groups saving lives and bringing aid and succour in some of the darkest and most desperate parts of the world.

Faith has driven much of the social progress of British society. Faith organisations continue to be a source of energy, new ideas and passion in civic society today. A recent Demos publication, which my right hon. Friend mentioned, found that religious people are more likely than non-religious people to volunteer regularly in their local community and to feel a greater sense of belonging. They also feel they can influence decisions locally and nationally, and are more likely to take decision-making roles, such as being a councillor, school governor or magistrate.

In my constituency, I see fantastic work undertaken by local faith groups every single day. Footprints in the Community is a faith-based group linked to the Trussell Trust which runs our local food banks in Redcar. It also runs what it calls a men’s shed: a workshop space in which men can meet, learn new skills, and tackle social isolation. Our local mosque in South Bank is so much more than a place of worship; it is a community hub and a resource centre that helps people to learn English, get into work, get help and advice, and tackle problems such as social isolation. We also have the Redcar Beacons Street Angels—other hon. Members have mentioned them—who help people on a Friday and Saturday night in the centre of town. I know from my own experience the role that Christians Against Poverty plays in my local area to help those struggling with debt and financial exclusion.

As has been explored today, many faith groups feel there is a reluctance by local authorities and others to commission services from faith-based providers. Conversely, many local authorities and commissioners have important concerns, which cannot be ignored, over the use of public funds to support faith-based services. It is vital that we try to tackle any misconceptions that exist. There can be a perception that potential users could be excluded on grounds such as religious belief, or that support is founded on outdated views of faith-based morality. However, Dr Sarah Johnsen’s in-depth study at the University of York in 2009 concluded that there was no evidence that faith-based organisations used public funds to propagate religion, or exclude potential users on grounds of religious belief or sexual orientation.

In the coming decade, this country will face new social needs and tough new demographic and economic challenges. There will be fresh demands on public health, social care, education, and employment support services, and on community inclusion. These challenges will require new resources. We need to unlock the potential of every part of our society to contribute towards solutions, and faith groups will be a vital part of that.

BruceFiona Bruce As the hon. Lady says, faith groups are playing, and will increasingly play, an important role in promoting community cohesion. Does she think that both local and national Government should do more to reach out to faith groups, to help them to fulfil their potential in that respect?

TurleyAnna Turley The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Faith groups will play an increasingly important role, and not just in the way that we deliver services. She mentions community cohesion; we have in our society challenges of integration and understanding, and in dispelling myths. Community groups are right on the frontline of communities and are able to bridge divides and break down myths and boundaries. I wholeheartedly support local and central Government in taking steps to build on that.

The big society promised to unleash great civic power, but for many groups, it has turned out to be a bit of a damp squib. Many faith groups, instead of benefiting from a huge unleashing of opportunity, are simply picking up the consequences of policy failure, desperation and crisis, as we have seen with food banks. I would like faith-based organisations to be seen as an important resource throughout the delivery of public services. If they are to be supported in working constructively and effectively as part of civil society, it will mean ensuring that local authorities are confident in commissioning services from them and transferring assets to them, and in working with appropriately qualified faith-based organisations. We need to make sure that local authorities include faith groups when they look for solutions to local social needs.

I recognise the work of the all-party parliamentary group on faith and society in demonstrating that faith groups have a great deal to offer as providers and advocates for the communities in which they serve. Some of their potential is unnecessarily being overlooked. To that end, I welcome the covenant that the group has established, which my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham explained in such detail. The covenant could be adopted by faith groups and local authorities in cities across the UK, and I would like to see it more widely propagated. It could go a long way towards breaking down myths, providing confidence and, by establishing agreed frameworks, building a relationship of trust and practical support.

Politicians of all religious beliefs and none do well to remember that we do not have a monopoly on the social conscience of this country, nor on social action. That is why the support of, and respect for, civic society is so important, and must remain at the heart of the Government’s vision for public services and social change.

I welcome this debate on today of all days, when I sincerely hope with all my heart that we will celebrate having the first ever Muslim Mayor of our capital city of London. That will send out the message to people around the world that our society in Britain is a place of openness, decency, and tolerance; a place where a person’s love of their community and city, and their commitment to others, to public service, and social good, is what defines them; and a place where faith is a source of positive energy, not something to be perverted as a smear. I sincerely hope that today’s election result shows us, in the spirit of this debate, that hope and unity will triumph over division in both British politics and civil society.

12.33 pm

WhartonThe Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (James Wharton) What a fascinating debate this has been. It has touched on areas of Government policy in a lot of Departments, and on experiences that so many hon. and right hon. Members have had in their constituencies. We have heard about so much of the great work that those of different faiths in our society do for the communities that we are all here to represent.

Faith is a deeply personal and individual thing. It can be the thing that inspires us when we strive to achieve, to do more, and to change the world and the circumstances around us. It can be the thing that consoles us when we are at our lowest ebb. It is interwoven into the history of our great country and throughout our society. It clearly has inspired many of the comments that hon. Members have made in this debate, which I welcome given its importance and relevance to so much of what is happening around us.

The Prime Minister has rightly praised the role and importance of faith in our society. Members of Parliament from across the party political divide recognise the different aspects of faith, and the ways in which it contributes to what we all want to achieve: a better, more successful society, community and country.

Faith organisations represent a huge part of our charitable and voluntary sector. There are nearly 50,000 faith-based charities; 27% of the charities registered in this country are faith-based—from small groups to large organisations such as the Salvation Army, which has been mentioned more than once today and has made a real contribution to our society for some 150 years.

Faith also makes a contribution to our policy and policy development. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on her work in this area and securing this debate in tandem with the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms). She spoke of the range of charities and organisations that work in this area and the variety of work they do.

I would like to mention street pastors. There are some in Stockton, and when I was first elected—I have done so subsequently—I went out with them to see the great work that they do on my local high street. They help people when they need a bit of extra support and calm people when they are scared, frustrated or frightened. I remember one night vividly. At about 2 o’clock in the morning, we approached one young lady who was somewhat the worse for wear—“tired and emotional” might be the appropriate jargon in this context. She gladly took the support—the bottle of water, the flip-flops and the welcoming arm around the shoulder—that the street pastors gave her. She looked at me and said, “You—you look like that Tory!” I said, “Don’t worry about that now; we’re here to help.” That is what this Government and these organisations are about—not party politics, but assisting people in our society to make it a better place.

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton spoke about campaigning work on the crucial issue of human trafficking, as well as literacy, youth work and keeping Middlewich clean. Contributions are made at different levels and in different ways, but they all matter, and they speak to the great work done by many people in our society, inspired by their faith.

My hon. Friend inspired my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) to make an intervention about his constituency’s experience during the flooding. I know from my visit to his constituency and others throughout the north of England when those devastating floods were experienced over Christmas and the new year that although it was often the Christian organisations that helped, the mosques in Bradford—this was the specific example that my hon. Friend gave—also stepped forward and were quick to organise the most effective support. It was the churches that opened their doors to those who had lost access to their homes because of the impact of the devastating weather across much of the north of England; and it was the churches and other faith and community-based religious organisations that were there to help people when they most needed help.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Sir Simon Burns) called faith groups “unsung heroes”, but they have certainly not all been unsung in today’s debate. While many have been recognised, there are many more. Indeed, there are so many doing so much that we would not have time to comment on them all this afternoon.

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton raised genuine and legitimate concerns about the way in which local government engages with faith-based organisations that want to do good work in our communities. Sometimes fear or a lack of understanding can prevent good things from being done for those communities that local government exists to serve. I am a Communities and Local Government Minister, so this issue resonates particularly with me. I would, of course, be happy to discuss it further with my hon. Friend because we want to ensure that when a positive contribution can be made, everything is done to facilitate it.

I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend said about Ofsted inspections. The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Education have been clear that the registration of out-of-school settings will not apply to organisations such as Sunday schools. We do not propose to regulate institutions such as Sunday schools that teach children for only a short period every week. We have to ensure that organisations do the right thing and meet the standards expected of them, but I have listened to my hon. Friend’s concerns. I am sure that they will be drawn to the attention of the Secretary of State for Education. I shall do that, and I know my hon. Friend will, too—in fact, she probably already has.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for East Ham on his work with the all-party group on faith and society, and the incredible contribution it makes to informing Members of the breadth of work done out there in the communities we all represent by faith-based organisations. He spoke of faith-based social activism and gave specific examples of the difference it can make when organisations inspired by their faith lead a debate that ultimately contributes to policy change in this place. They convince those who, by virtue of our democratic process, have the opportunity to effect political change by supporting the right issues.

The right hon. Gentleman also spoke about the faith covenant, the development of which by the all-party group on faith and society is welcome. We wanted engagement in the delivery of Government services—particularly at local government level, as suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton—to take place in a way that would secure the maximum benefit for all who rely on those services, and the covenant makes a welcome contribution to that discussion.

TimmsStephen Timms May I ask the Minister to reflect on the Oasis Trust’s proposal that the covenant should be sponsored by the Government, and that the Government should help to spread it among local authorities throughout the country?

WhartonJames Wharton Anything that raises the profile of the work that is being done, and that draws attention to the engagement and approach that are needed, is certainly welcome. I will indeed reflect on the right hon. Gentleman’s comments. I am sure that this debate is helping to raise the profile of what is indeed an important issue, but I acknowledge that he would like additional work to be done.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) spoke of the great work that is being done by a range of charities in his constituency, across faiths and across the communities that they serve, which even includes the use of the Conservative association headquarters—I welcome that innovative step. That work is making a real difference to the lives of people in Stafford. He spoke of the need for not just funding, but funding consistency. That sends an important message to central and local government departments, and the arms of the state that commission services, about what is needed by voluntary organisations which, by their very nature and the way in which they come about, are often more effective than any deliberately centrally designed arm of government is likely to be. Balancing the need to ensure that public money is properly protected and accounted for with the need to retain what makes those organisations special presents an important challenge, as does giving them the consistency and certainty that they need to engage with funding streams and get the best from them. I will certainly take account of my hon. Friend’s comments, and I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Civil Society, who is very involved with this issue, will be interested in what he said.

My hon. Friend also spoke about the value of training and the processes that are needed to ensure that people who are involved in these programmes continue to be trained and retrained so that that they can get the best out of the good things that they want to do. His comments were welcome and pertinent, and I know that they will resonate across Government and in his continuing discussions with Ministers.

My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) made a powerful speech about the contribution of faith to public life. He spoke from his considerable experience, highlighting the historical context of that contribution and what it has done to build the society in which we live today. He gave the specific example of the value of the contribution of Christian volunteers to the society and communities of Cornwall. That contribution, it emerged, was worth £20 million a year, and that did not include the great work done by many other faith groups and groups in general. My hon. Friend rightly observed that when that figure is multiplied to cover the whole country, it becomes clear that a significant contribution is being made to our society.

The quick and practical response of faith organisations is often unparalleled. As has been pointed out, in the event of floods and other disasters, of whatever type and wherever they occur in the world, it is often faith-driven communities that are sufficiently fleet of foot, motivated in the right way, and adequately engaged and connected to ensure that help reaches those who need it most rapidly. Governments always try to be quick to respond to emerging challenges, but they are not always the first to respond or the first on the scene, and they are not always the fastest in providing help where it is needed. Faith organisations often fulfil that role, and the work that they do in that respect is incredibly important.

My hon. Friend also challenged me to recognise, on behalf of the Government, the importance of the contribution of faith to our society and what we do. I hope that I have already made clear the Government’s support for faith organisations, but I will restate it for the avoidance of any doubt. Like the Prime Minister, and like many Members who have spoken in the debate, I recognise—the Government recognise—the important contribution that faith makes to our society and the incredible value that it adds to our country. However, my hon. Friend was right to ask for that recognition to be put on record again today because it is important to all of us and the communities that we represent.

The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley), touched on many comments that hon. Members have made. She also made a specific point about the Charity Commission’s work in regulating this area. The commission does a difficult job. It deals with a range of charitable organisations and has to ensure that they do not use the freedoms that we rightly give them and the support that the state offers them for purposes that are not charitable. It has to work hard to get the balance right, and the shadow Minister is absolutely right that we should look into any concerns to ensure that that job is being done appropriately.

The Charity Commission must be free to make investigations when appropriate, but it must also be accountable for any decisions it makes and investigations that it carries out. I welcome the shadow Minister’s comments about the need to get the balance right regarding the sort of organisations that are chosen for investigation to ensure that every community and every faith, the depth of whose contributions we have heard about today, will feel able to engage fully with the freedoms that exist and the opportunities to contribute to our society.

This has been a positive, informative and well-informed debate. It has without doubt highlighted the breadth of the work that faith and charity organisations do. It has touched on many aspects of Government policy and many areas of support in our society, and drawn on examples from right across our great country. The charitable sector is a great and wonderful thing. It is one of those things that we should be proud of and that makes this country great. A large part of the charitable sector is supported by those motivated by their true and deeply held faith and convictions, which is to be welcomed and encouraged. The comments made by hon. Members today underline the significance that we in this House attach to the work that they do.

12.46 pm

BruceFiona Bruce I thank the Minister for his wholehearted and heartfelt support in applauding the work of the many organisations of faith that have been referred to in the debate. I also thank all Members who have spoken and I join them in applauding the work of the organisations to which they have referred. I also thank the Minister for his offer to meet me, because there are four issues that he did not touch on in his response, although I accept that the content of the debate has ranged across several Departments.

First, will the Minister write to me in response to my point about how central Government could work with local authorities to promote religious literacy across our communities, which in turn would promote community cohesion? Secondly, how can our Government explore the concept of reasonable accommodation? Other countries have looked at that, so it would be helpful if we could do so, too. Thirdly, it might have come as a surprise to the Minister to hear that the top concern expressed by evangelical Christians was that policies should promote liberty and freedom of expression. Will he examine the considerable concern that certain policies are having a chilling effect, which I am sure that the Government would want to deter, on free speech on the part of people of faith? Finally, I would appreciate it if he would give a written response to the concerns I expressed in the last part of my speech, which others have touched on, about proposals on out-of-school settings. The consultation was held many months ago and tens of thousands of people across the country are awaiting the Government’s response to the contributions that they spent a long time submitting.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the contribution of faith organisations to the voluntary sector in local communities.

(via Parliament.uk)