Transcript of Stephen Timms MP at Westminster Hall


All Party Parliamentary Group on Faith and Society
Stephen Timms MP speaks at the Westminster Hall debate
‘Co-operation between local government and faith communities’
2 July 2013

Stephen Timms MP: […] The all-party group on faith and society, supported by FaithAction, which provides its secretariat, was formed in April 2011 and aims to promote understanding of faith-based organisations engaged in social action in the UK, to promote recognition of their value and to consider regulatory and legislative arrangements that can make the most of the potential contribution of faith-based organisations around the UK. The group took evidence from some innovative faith-based organisations in this country.

We had four meetings focusing on the following areas: welfare to work, in respect of which faith-based groups have been doing impressive work; meeting the needs of children and young people; health and well-being; and international development. For each meeting, FaithAction put out a call for evidence to member organisations, other networks and partners, and asked for groups to make contact if they wanted to present evidence at one of the roundtable meetings. At the meetings, we asked each group to present for five minutes on their current work, setting out what they are doing and the barriers they face.

At the welfare-to-work roundtable, for example, we spoke to the Nishkam centre, which is an impressive Sikh organisation in Birmingham. We also heard evidence at that meeting from Spear, which is based at St Paul’s church in Hammersmith. At the children and young people’s meeting, we heard from the Hawbush project in Dudley and the Pathway project in the west midlands. There were half a dozen organisations at the meeting on international development, including Jewish Care, Parish Nursing, Khalsa Aid, the LifeLine Network and Muslim Aid.

David Burrowes MP: I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for his work supporting the positive contribution of faith, not least in his position in the previous Government. In his role within the all-party group, has he reflected on how one can improve religious literacy across the country? The myth-buster document was, in many ways, one of the best documents to come out of the previous Government. Does he see the need for guidance, or would he seek to follow the role of the Department for International Development? The 2012 document, “Faith Partnership Principles” outlined the Government’s relationship with international aid, and it could be a good framework to follow in our relationship with local government, too.

Stephen Timms MP: The hon. Gentleman makes some important points. The all-party group has identified three main areas of concern, the second of which, religious literacy, he has highlighted. Many, if not most, of the concerns are about the relationship with local authorities.

First, local authorities and grant-making bodies often seem to be pretty uneasy about faith playing a part in service delivery, as is highlighted in the report that prompted this debate. Consequently, faith-based organisations often feel that they ought to downplay the role and importance of faith in their work. Such organisations are absolutely clear that they cannot take faith out of their faith-based work, and if they attempted to do so, there would not be much left. That would result in a lack of integrity on their part, because faith is the heart and driving force of what they do.

Secondly, it is difficult to explain what the faith-based organisations call “faith logic” to local authority service commissioners. Jewish Care, for example, talked to us about its struggle to express the faith needs of the Jewish community in a particular local authority area to local authority officers in an understandable way—and that is in a community in which 20% of the population is Jewish. Similar concerns were raised in other discussions, and there is a widespread perception, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, of religious illiteracy among local authority officers—not malice, I do not think, but difficulty in understanding what such organisations are about and how best to relate to them.

Such religious illiteracy has led to local authorities being hesitant to work with faith groups. One organisation that presented to us described how there was often scepticism about whether its services are professional, even though the organisation in question is accredited by Ofsted. Another organisation found that its local authority is reluctant to work with a single faith group in case doing so offended other faith groups. Such problems are often the result of a misunderstanding, rather than malice.

Thirdly, some local authorities are just not aware of the work undertaken by faith-based organisations in their area.

Sir Edward Leigh: It is even more serious than that. As far as I know, there is not a single Catholic adoption agency left working in this country, despite the fact that they all worked with the most vulnerable people. They were all forced to close down because they were told by local authorities that they had to abide by equality legislation, which trumps everything. Catholic adoption agencies were not prepared to allow same-sex couples to adopt children, so they have all closed down. There is a serious attack on faith-based organisations and their ethos.

Stephen Timms: I would favour local authorities being encouraged to undertake a faith and service audit, which would potentially identify areas for collaboration between different faith groups. It was emphasised in our meetings that such research is potentially important in discovering good initiatives that may otherwise go unnoticed and unsupported.

It is important to underline that the groups that attended the roundtables have long-term goals. They expressed their commitment to continue serving the needs of their areas, even when funding is hard to come by. Sometimes that is made easier by the resources that come with faith-based organisations, such as a large base of volunteers, resources, motivation and drive to do the work they are doing, which is unique to such faith groups.

I have also been chairing the Demos inquiry into faith, society and politics. Demos has published two of the three volumes in its series of studies, the second of which, “Faithful Providers,” considers faith group involvement in public service delivery. In particular, Demos has considered the concerns that are sometimes raised about what faith groups do when they deliver public services, and from its discussions with a number of groups it found no evidence to support such fears.

As Demos is not a faith-based organisation, it is worth drawing attention to what it says. It found that faith groups are “highly motivated and effective” in instilling a public service ethos, and that they “often serve as the permanent and persistent pillars of community action within local communities.”

Demos also found that faith groups are “acutely aware of the need to be inclusive, keep religion ‘in the background’ and not abuse the power imbalance between service provider and user.”

That captures well the reality of what such organisations are doing.

Finally, we can all see that there are big challenges ahead for our communities. The pressing question is how we can make the most of the potential contribution of faith-based groups in addressing those challenges. The all-party group proposes to draft a covenant that could act as the basis for a fresh conversation between local authorities, and public authorities more generally, on the one hand, and faith communities on the other hand. Similar things have been considered in the past, and I know that the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) has done some good work on that. The idea of a covenant would be to commit the faith communities that sign up to it to playing their part in addressing some of the pressing community needs and to meeting a set of very high standards, including providing assurances that they would not do the things that sometimes people suspect they might do, while also permitting them to be faithful to the convictions that are the reason for what they do. I hope we will be able to make some specific proposals along those lines quite soon.

The previous Archbishop of Canterbury said:

“The trouble with a lot of Government initiatives about faith is that they assume it is a problem, it’s an eccentricity, it’s practised by oddities, foreigners and minorities.”

It should not be like that, and if that impression has been given by authorities in the past, it must not happen in the future—we cannot afford for that to happen in the future. A clear and fair covenant that recognises the unique position of faith groups may go some way towards addressing those problems.

I warmly welcome this debate, and I very much hope that we can make considerable progress in this important area.