Thursday, November 29, 2007

Allowing faith groups to run public services takes pressure off government

reposted from:
Chris Street comments are in bright green;
highlights in yellow blockquotes.
Rahila Gupta

No faith in the state

Allowing faith groups to run public services takes pressure off government, but it doesn't serve the interests of a diverse population

November 28, 2007 7:00 PM | Printable version

Rolling back the frontiers of the state used to be a pet Tory project. Labour has taken it on with gusto: the frontiers have shrunk to such an extent that they have left the body politic exposed. The provision of public services has been offloaded on to the business and voluntary sectors. Giving business new opportunities for profit has ensured Labour's longevity in government while the voluntary sector - the so-called third sector - has done the same job more cheaply, often at the expense of poorer conditions of employment for staff and by supplementing its income from private sources. However,

the reasons why government has been actively courting faith groups which have been swelling the ranks of the voluntary sector are less clear.

In this context,

the British Humanist Association (BHA) has published a timely report today. Quality and Equality: Human Rights, Public Services and Religious Organisations alerts us to the dangers inherent in the involvement of faith groups in service provision.
Employment legislation allows faith groups to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation and religious belief in certain circumstances; there is the potential for discrimination against service users of different faiths; the possibility of lower standards of service or the non-availability of services which conflict with religious principles such as the right to life; and there's the shocking fact that the Human Rights Act does not apply to this sector thus giving us little chance of redress. Yet Blair's famous speech on multiculturalism in December 2006 identified equal treatment for all as one of the core values of Britishness.

The contradictions do not stop there. The government has been funding capacity building in faith groups as a way of promoting its cohesion agenda on the basis that better governance steers groups away from extremism. Under this policy it is mostly Muslim groups that have benefited. This is the flip side of the war on terror. On the one hand you target Muslim youth with a battery of anti-terror laws, on the other you throw money at them. When Blair lamented the fact that "Money was too often freely awarded to groups that were tightly bonded around religious, racial or ethnic identities", we felt hopeful that it marked the end of funding for faith groups. But the opposite has happened. An organisation like Southall Black Sisters, a secular group working with women across many ethnicities, faces the prospect of cuts under this policy while its local council bumps up its cohesion budget.

This grey area gets even murkier. There are faith groups providing independently funded services which do not feature in the BHA report because it chooses to focus on publicly funded services. Should a public service be defined simply as one that is publicly funded or should it be extended to include any service on which public authorities, like the police, rely on in order to carry out their responsibilities?

Take the issue of trafficking of women for sexual exploitation. Despite the scale of the problem, the government funds only 30 bedspaces at the POPPY project for women who have escaped. As provision is so skimpy, the police rely heavily on Chaste which uses church funding to provide 20 bedspaces, one third of the total provision in Britain for trafficked women.

Trafficked women, new to the country, are hardly likely to protest at the kind of refuge they are being given when they are desperate to escape from their traffickers. Unlike a religious adoption service, where diversity and choice might be desirable, it cannot be said that these women are choosing their service provider freely. According to the website, Chaste offers, "psycho-spiritual support when requested by those trafficked into prostitution, working with the known religious routes of confession, blessing, absolution...". The spokesperson for Chaste refused to be drawn on their policy on abortion, for example, or the number of pregnant trafficked women that they see on the grounds that it was a sensitive issue.

The government should be funding such services, run along secular lines, in order to ensure accountability and transparency. Where such provision is not available, it should not throw vulnerable people to the mercy of those with evangelical agendas.

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