On 12th January 2022, the House of Lords debated a motion to take note of a report from the Risk Assessment and Risk Planning Committee: Preparing for Extreme Risks: Building a Resilient Society (Session 2021–22, HL Paper 110). The Bishop of Leicester spoke in the debate, advocating for greater inclusion of faith groups in emergency planning:
The Lord Bishop of Leicester: My Lords, I, too, am grateful for the Select Committee’s work in tackling such an important subject and, in particular, I concur with the authors’ recognition that,
“the UK must move away from a risk management strategy which … often ignores or fails to appreciate the interconnected nature of our society”,
and that we must instead,
“produce a risk management system that ties all sectors of society together.”
Interdependence is a fundamental part of human nature and policies that follow the grain of that nature are far more likely to succeed.
I was disappointed, therefore, that although the report advocated for a whole-society approach, no reference was made to the role of faith groups in emergency planning and response. Faith groups and leaders across the country were an integral part of the response to Covid-19. A 2020 report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Faith and Society, based on research with local authorities, found that faith communities were instrumental in local responses by offering buildings, running food banks, information-sharing, befriending, collecting, cooking and delivering food, and providing volunteers for local authority programmes. Accordingly, the APPG found that local authorities developed a new-found appreciation for the agility, flexibility and professionalism of faith-based organisations, and that local authorities were keen to continue and build on those relationships in the future.
When I consulted with my own local public health team, I heard a similar account. In Leicester, throughout 2020 and 2021 there was a fortnightly faiths engagement group that brought together public bodies with faith leaders to co-ordinate how to translate and disseminate important messages about the virus itself and the associated restrictions. Our city’s director of public health, Professor Ivan Browne, told me: “I would argue that any strategic document that in any way considers a community response to a crisis must consider the role of community and faith groups.” Another example would be the 2016 floods, when Khalsa Aid, a Sikh charity, together with groups of Muslim volunteers, spent weeks in the affected towns in Lancashire and Yorkshire, serving thousands of hot meals and helping with the clean-up.
Across the UK, when there have been terror attacks or explosions, churches have opened to offer shelter and hospitality for those affected and places for emergency services to base themselves. Of course, there is also the Salvation Army, which as well as being a Christian denomination is one of the world’s largest providers of social aid and humanitarian assistance, frequently on the front lines of the response to earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis across the globe.
Even as we speak, faith-based organisations are responding to another national emergency, which might not require flashing blue lights or daily briefings, but is shocking in its scale nevertheless. Across the country, and for several years now, churches, mosques, temples, gurdwaras and synagogues have been hosting and supporting food banks and community pantries. Faith groups may appear to be superfluous stakeholders to government departments responsible for risk assessment and planning, but the children of God in need of food parcels may tell a different story.
Faith groups also have a distinct contribution to make in the face of crises. Beyond meeting material needs alone, they are often central in reinforcing a local sense of identity and the connections that comprise a community’s social fabric. The gift of our common life together can easily be disrupted by disaster or conflict yet cannot be maintained or mended by a statutory service, no matter how well intentioned.
As well as their institutional presence, most faiths have an other-centredness at their core that prepares their members to be willing, as well as able, to help. Week in, week out, most people of faith are working to grow in patience, generosity, temperance, wisdom and, most importantly, compassion.
With this in mind, I suggest that the Select Committee’s report should go further when it speaks about the role of education in building our society’s resilience. We should also consider how our education system can build what psychologists identify as the five pillars of resilience: self-awareness, mindfulness, self-care, positive relationships, and a sense of purpose. These are the building blocks of a resilient citizenry.
If the Civil Contingencies Act is to be updated, as the Select Committee recommends, to reflect the importance of several societal organisations not recognised in the current legislation, might I suggest that faith groups and faith-based organisations are also included?
Extracts from the speeches that followed:
Baroness Neville Rolfe (Con): I emphasise that the framework is important and strategic. It strengthens the systems, structures and capabilities which underpin the UK’s resilience to all risks and those that might emerge. It is based on three key principles. The first is a shared understanding of the risks we face. The second is a focus on prevention rather than cure, wherever this is possible, as several people have mentioned. Some risks can be predicted or prevented, but it is more difficult to do so for others. The third principle is of resilience as a whole-of-society endeavour. Everyone seems to agree on the importance of that. We are more transparent, and we want to empower all parts of society to make a contribution, so I was glad to hear from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester about the possible role of faith groups and volunteers of all kinds. He is right about the contribution they make in crises, as I know from the work of the churches in my own local area of the Nadder Valley. Faith groups are also part of the local resilience forums. In London, for example, we have a voluntary, community and faith sector sub-group—but the key message is about resilience as a whole-of-society endeavour. Covid taught us the value of that.
Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom (Con): The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester took the committee to task for failing to mention faith groups. He made a fair point. That brings me on to the importance of communities. We do not get resilience without strong communities and faith group are right at the heart of strong communities.
That brings me on to my final point, which relates to the issue of “whole of society”, the third principle of the Government’s framework. Elisabeth Braw gave evidence to the committee, and she said in a Times article a couple of weeks ago that while she welcomed the framework in general, it barely mentioned the public. She described it as an enormous missed opportunity. The opportunity is now; the people are ready. Let us bring them in and fire them up and set them free.