Bishop of Durham highlights work of faith-based charities and role of volunteers

On Tuesday 16th January 2018 the House of Lords debated a motion from Baroness Pitkeathley “That this House takes note of the Report from the Select Committee on Charities Stronger charities for a stronger society (Session 2016-17, HL Paper 133).” The Bishop of Durham, Rt Revd Paul Butler, spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, I draw notice to my charitable interests as listed in the House register.

This insightful report rightly stresses that we live in a time when charities provide an ever-greater volume and range of social provision in our society. Therefore, their role must be thoughtfully recognised and supported by the Government. I am proud of the role that the Church of England and all UK faith groups play in this provision. As examples, we run food banks, advice drop-ins, youth clubs and practical skills and jobs training, support the elderly and offer legal support to asylum seekers. According to New Philanthropy Capital, more than a quarter of charities in Great Britain have an association with faith and many people of faith help in the full range of charities. The significance of faith as a motivator for charitable action should never be underestimated. The particular needs and challenges that the Church and other faith-based charities face must be considered and taken seriously in any coherent strategy for the long-term flourishing of UK charities.

Sometimes these charities encounter a lack of religious literacy when relating to local authorities. A recent report from NPC found that many faith-based charities have concerns that a negative or sceptical perception can count against them, particularly with local authority commissioners. Equally, there is a challenge and responsibility for Christians and other faith groups to express their belief in a way that is confident and inviting. In my experience, where churches and Christian charities develop a reputation for delivering services well and inclusively, trust builds and opportunities for collaboration grow. Langley House Trust, for example, is an innovative Christian charity providing offender rehabilitation and substance abuse services across England, operating in 120 sites across 22 local authorities.​

Some excellent work has been done on this issue, including the APPG on Faith and Society’s faith covenant. This sets out a joint commitment between local authorities and faith-based groups to guide engagement between them. The covenant is currently working in six areas but could be implemented more widely. What are Her Majesty’s Government doing to improve religious understanding and awareness to ensure further healthy engagement of faith-based charities in the design of future service provision?

I wholeheartedly commend the report’s emphasis on partnership working between the charity and public sectors and the strengthening of social value considerations in commissioning. Too often, provision in one locality or another is fragmented and bewildering. This is detrimental to the charities, particularly small ones, which are often underresourced and subsequently forced into competition with one another. Lack of partnership is, moreover, detrimental to service users, which often slip through gaps in provision. Partnerships lead to holistic, people-centred approaches that can cater to all of an individual’s needs, enabling human flourishing as well as streamlining resources in a time-efficient and cost-efficient way.

A brilliant example of this from my own diocese is Advice in County Durham. This partnership includes more than 120 organisations across the county, including the council, Welfare Rights, Citizens Advice and many small and medium local charities. As well as offering training and network events, it runs an online referral system that enables one charity, for example a food bank, to make an immediate referral to another, for example a debt advice centre. For faith-based charities, many of which, as with many other charities, are small and underresourced, with a high output, partnership working of this nature is fundamental to their survival. While I welcome the Government’s commitment to the Public Services (Social Value) Act in respect of commissioning processes, I lament the recent shift in focus and resources away from voluntary sector compacts. I look forward to the Government’s forthcoming civil society strategy and I trust that it will be a timely opportunity to refocus on this kind of partnership working.

It is vital that good governance, transparency and accountability are at the heart of UK charities. This should include an evidence-based approach to understanding a charity’s impacts. I fully welcome the report’s recommendations on this subject. However, it must be acknowledged that gauging the impact of charities is not easy. The less tangible nature of tasks such as combating social isolation and loneliness, and building community cohesion and belonging at a local level, do not always fit neatly into impact assessments. At a time when many statutory services are going online or facing considerable pressure on time and resources, the relational work that charities and grass-roots community groups undertake is more vital than ever. We must ensure that all independent evaluations of the impact of charities on their clients respect a broad, expansive and inclusive definition of impacts. Gathering stories of change can be one particularly valuable way of evidencing the difference that this work makes.

As we have heard today, volunteers are the lifeblood of charities in the UK. If the charitable sector is evolving in the way that this report identifies, with an ​ever-larger sphere of responsibility for social provision, we cannot naïvely hope that enough volunteers will just sign up. Indeed, a 2015 Church of England and Church Urban Fund report on church and Christian social action found that one of the biggest barriers to expanding faith-based provision was access to volunteers. Innovatively investing in volunteers is both an appropriate sign of respect for the invaluable role that they play in civil society and fundamental to the sustainability of the sector. I commend one such initiative, Step Up To Serve’s #iwill UK-wide campaign, which aims to make social action a regular part of the lives of as many young people as possible. Much more, however, can be done to change the narrative of volunteering. It must be recognised as a good in its own right and not simply a springboard to paid employment.

How will Her Majesty’s Government facilitate ordinary working people incorporating voluntary action into their lives? We cannot rely on the young and the retired to bear the full strain of UK charitable provision. The charity sector of this nation is one of which we should be rightly proud. Let us do all that we can for it to go from strength to strength.

Baroness Barker (LibDem):… The right reverend Prelate is absolutely right about the role of religious charities and I encourage him to look at our discussions with the Church Urban Fund and the Islamic charity Penny Appeal. However, I say to him that unless and until those religious charities welcome everybody—and I mean everybody—in a locality, there will always be something of a tension and something of a reservation before some of us engage with them in the ways that we would wish to.