Page 10, 13th June 2008

13th June 2008
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Page 10, 13th June 2008 — This Government is failing Britain's Christian charities
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This Government is failing Britain's Christian charities

A new report shows that Labour discriminates against the work of faith groups, says Samuel Burke 4 ,, I he Government is moral. but

is without a moral compass."

That is the devastating critique of a new major report commissioned by the Church of England. Strongly reminiscent of the Faith in the City report of 1985, "Moral But No Compass" details a litany of failings on the part of the Government in welfare provision and its engagement with the Church of England. While the report was commissioned by the Church of England, it also contains analysis and recommendations which the Catholic Church must take into account and respond to.

Drawing on hundreds of interviews and survey questionnaires. the report describes how the Labour Party's welfare and related voluntary sector policies are often experienced as "discriminatory", inadequately rooted in evidence and at risk of failing faith communities. It is plain from the report that the Government simply does not recognise let alone engage and support the contribution of faith communities in the provision of welfare services, preferring instead their own orthodoxy of "State-ist" solutions to the tasks of Government.

That the authors of the report conclude that the Government is "faith illiterate" will come as no great shock to many readers. And there is something not altogether surprising about the fmdings of the report. Putting aside some of the more hysterical commentary in the secular press, the real story here is the evidential basis which presents the Government as at worst wilfully discriminatory, at best complacent but probably apathetically ignorant of the largest voluntary organisation in Britain: the Church of England.

As with so many things, the devil is in the detail. Details such as the revelation that, due to the way faith charities are classified and compounded by that increas ingly prevalent defence, "data problems" the Charity Commission may be underestimating the number of Christian charities in this country by as much as 60 per cent. "The Government," says the report, "is planning its welfare policies blind."

"If what we were told is correct, the churches simply do not register on the policy-making radar in serious terms. The Government has focused so intensely on minority faiths that it has failed to develop a coherent evidence base for the largest religious body in the UK, the Christian church."

The report pertains not just to the Church of England: it is addressed to the Church and the nation. The report found that Catholic charities such as the Society of St Vincent de Paul, and some Catholic children's societies, do not qualify as "faithbased" because their immediate focus is upon "relieving poverty". This classification is premised upon the absurd notion that charitable activities by Catholic organisations exclude the very faith that inspires their work.

To address this imbalance, the report recommends that the Government appoint a minister for religion, social cohesion and voluntary action to make the most of what churches and charities can offer. But, crucially. this minister will be based at the Cabinet Office, which drives policy throughout all the Government departments.

The Government has showed little sign of taking the report seriously. Speaking on the BBC's Sunday Programme Hazel Blears, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, remarked: "We live in a secular democracy and actually I think that is a precious thing in this country." But she admitted: "We can always do better." With such lamentable attitudes to faith in Britain, it is little wonder the

Labour Party is inflicting untold damage in its relations with Christians. How could this have happened under the Labour Party? For over 10 years it has been led by an Anglo-Catholic, Tony Blair, and now a son of the manse, Gordon Brown. One would think that the church might be happier with Labour in power. But as the Gospel says: "By their fruit shall you know them." The problem, it seems, is that there is little fruit to be found in the attacks on human dignity of some of the Government's legislation most notably the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill.

So alarming is the lack of recognition of the study that the Labour Frank Field MP, who so often almost single-handedly holds the Government to account, has tabled an Early Day Motion calling for a national debate on the report. Mr Field urges the Government to "help the UK harness [the] under-recognised faith-based contribution to the life of the UK".

Enter the Conservatives. The Tories receive an oblique affirmation for their rhetoric, at least for their approach to the third sector. which seeks to recognise and engage faith-based initiatives as providers of social welfare. The report recounts: "Of all our interviewees, Conservative advisers and politicians were among the most comfortable and enthusiastic regarding involving faith groups in this renewal of the third sector. and believed that Christian churches had something 'unique' to bring to the table as strong local leaders."

Seeing the Church as integral to addressing the manifest societal breakdown in Britain, kin Duncan Smith and the Centre for Social Justice in its report "Breakdown Britain" called for more action from churches in addressing crime, youth delinquency and social welfare. Though, as the report suggests, it remains to be seen whether the Conservative Party would make good on their commitments and put concrete policies into action while in government.

Also contained in the report are recommendations for the Church. It. too, must adapt to the changing times and overcome its perception that it is actually understood by society. The Church of England is in a position, should it so wish, to engage in even more extensive social entrepreneurship, community activism and public advocacy and the same could be said of the Catholic Church.

There is a debate to be had in the Anglican Communion about realising the potential of its civic contribution, and it is one that the Catholic Church must participate in. For instance, the report recommends that the British Ambassador to the Holy See and the British Permanent Representative to the European Commission facilitate a major international conference on the UK and Commonwealth experience of public service reform and advocacy with and for the poor the Catholic Church is undoubtedly the most experienced in this field across the world. We must look to other countries, such as Germany, where the Church is heavily engaged in public service provision, and ask what lessons we might draw from their experience. That said, the increasingly hostile legislation emanating from Westminster has made it nothing short of impossible for Catholics in fields such as GP surgeries and adoption agencies to make their contribution .

The Bishop for Urban Life, Stephen Lowe, notes in his introduction to the report that what is needed now is careful reflection on the part of Government and the Christian community "and then action". The report calls for a "fresh conversation" between the Government and the Church; the fear I have is that the Labour Party is not willing to listen.




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