Saturday, June 21, 2008

Welfare shouldn't be left to 'faith groups'

The government is trying to get religious bodies involved in the provision of services. In doing so, they're ignoring the lessons of history

Last week, the prime minister opened the doors of 10 Downing Street to a group representing "people of faith" and announced that the New Labour was moving into "new and exciting territory" as it pulls religion closer to the centre of political power.

Gordon Brown thanked the faith leaders profusely for the many projects they run that help disadvantaged people. "We're here to celebrate local projects that make such a difference, led by people of faith: changing the world, transforming communities and having an enormous ripple effect across the country", he said.

Indeed, many church organisations do carry out wonderful work with hard-to-reach people and they should be applauded for their efforts. But should they receive public money to do it? Surely the very definition of charitable work is that it is done and financed from the pockets of people of goodwill, not by the taxpayer.

More importantly, should these "faith groups" be invited to take on even more social and welfare work that has traditionally been done by secular local authorities and central government?

The Downing Street meeting came soon after the publication of a Church of England-commissioned report, Moral, But No Compass, that complained that "faith based welfare" was not appreciated by the government and that the Church of England must be given large amounts of money and a lot more influence immediately.

The Downing Street event, (a coincidence of course) marked the launch of a Labour consultation exclusively with faith groups, entitled Believing for a Better Britain, run by the government's new "faiths taskforce", chaired by Alun Michael MP.

The actual spadework on the consultation will be done by Malcolm Duncan of the Faithworks movement. This, you will remember, was set up by the Rev Steve Chalke to ensure that religious organisations play a big role in welfare provision,
and get lots of lovely public money to spend on their organisations.
Since then Faithworks has become more or less an arm of the government.

Malcolm Duncan, leader of Faithworks, aims to use the consultation "to hear first-hand the concerns of faith communities and those motivated by their beliefs, in order to reflect those concerns in the next manifesto."

Duncan will be, of course, impeccably objective. He tells us that:

People of faith are making a vital contribution to the United Kingdom. It is impossible to talk about community cohesion, joined up service delivery or strong and sustainable partnerships without understanding this. By acknowledging the distinctiveness of different faith groups, we are also able to harness their commonality. As the consultation with people of faith and belief gets under way, I am committed to ensuring that the listening process is honest, open and accountable. As the Labour party listens more closely to people of faith and belief, my hope is that it will discover again the amazing contribution of people of faith and belief.

So, it isn't as though Duncan has decided the outcome of the consultation in advance, or anything, is it? And no self-respecting taxpayer would begrudge the hundreds of thousands of pounds that it will cost to run this exercise in futility, the results of which are probably already written and at the printers.

Oh and look – here comes our old friend Stephen Timms MP, vice chair of the Labour party "with responsibility for faith".

Eh? Haven't we got a faith taskforce chair already in the shape of Alun Michael? Oh well, it seems we now have two Labour politicians for "faith". After all, there are so many "people of faith" in this country, that we really need two representatives to give them whatever they ask for … er, that is to say, look after their interests, don't we?

Timms also reassures us that the "faith consultation" is in no way the foregone conclusion and complete waste of time, money and effort that it seems to be. "This consultation gives us a tremendous opportunity to listen more closely to people whose starting point is faith", he says. "Far from being a narrow path of discourse, it opens a highway for Labour to listen and speak with those who are committed to making a collective difference in society and are determined to be a source of good. Under Malcolm Duncan's independent leadership, the consultation process will be a vital contributor to how Labour develops its policies and approach to working with people of faith."

Well, there we are then. A completely objective and open-minded consultation will be headed by the man with most to gain from coming out with a positive response about "the faith communities".

Duncan is a decent chap, and he means well. But he is pushing the country into something we are all going to live to regret. And most people seem completely unaware it's going on. Far from asking the "faith communities" whether they would like another great big chunk of money and privilege (naturally they think they deserve nothing less), this consultation ought to be opened up to the whole country. In the end, it's our money they're dishing out to the discriminators and proselytisers, but no one asked the punter in the street whether it should happen.

Faith-based welfare? Are the churches going to be permitted to do to hospitals and social services what they have done to schools? To turn them into hotbeds of injustice, favouritism, prejudice, discrimination and separation? Sectarian old-folks homes anyone? Catholic-only adoption services? Sikh-only housing associations? Muslim-only probation services?

We know where faith-based welfare leads. We've seen it in operation in Ireland and Scotland where we ended up with the Magdalene asylums. We have seen it in operation in Australia where it led to generations of aboriginal children being stolen from their families by the churches. And now the same thing has happened in Canada where the government apologised this week for handing over the children of the indigenous people to various church organisations in order for them to be "Christianised". All over the world, priests are on trial for grotesquely abusing children put in their care in the belief that faith-based welfare was automatically trustworthy and safe. In the US where faith-based welfare is institutionalised, it leads to unfettered bigotry that increasingly ends in acrimonious and distressing court cases.

The Bishop of Carlisle has already made clear that he does not wish to see any regulation of church welfare provision.

Duncan will tell us that it is different now. But is it? His Faithworks programme has come up with a charter that it asks its member organisations to sign. It expects them to promise not to discriminate against their staff on grounds of religion and not to restrict their services only to people they approve of.

All that is fine, but what about those religious groups that have not, and will not, sign the charter? The ones who constantly mewl about wanting to be exempted from human rights and equality legislation? Duncan, with his good intentions, is opening the door to the maniacs as well as the good guys.

But far more tragically, the government is aiding and abetting this without consulting anyone but those with a vested interest.

Where are the secularist Labour MPs in all this? Why aren't they as noisy and demanding as their Christian counterparts? Why don't they speak up for the unconsulted in all this and protest about what is happening?

Could it be that they support Brown's plan to divest the government of its social responsibilities? Does it imagine that it is OK to cast us to the wolves of religious charity that will, as soon as they are established, start to abuse their authority?

Christian charities should also realise that they risk putting their "ethos" at risk if they throw in their lot with the government. They may find themselves regulated in ways that they do not like, and then we have confrontations such as the one currently being engaged in by Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor. Last week he announced that he intends to defy the recently-introduced equality law and continue to discriminate against gay couples who want to access Catholic adoption services. The cardinal does not need to wait for any consultation to end. He obviously regards himself above the civil law.

We will have to see whether the courts – and Brown – agree with him. If they do, then the results of faith-based welfare will be bleak.

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