Big Society faith based partners must be subject to scrutiny

Where can the government find willing community workers outside the public sector? Answer: religious groups. However, that brings difficult questions in itself.

The Big Society has a big problem, according to an Ipsos MORI poll last month, 91 per cent of adults don’t want to be involved. The government could turn to the voluntary sector but they have already cut their funding forcing them into making redundancies. So where else can they find willing and able community workers outside the public sector? Answer: religious groups however that brings difficult questions in itself.

Liberal Democrats are reported in the Guardian, to be pressing the government for “guarantees” that greater involvement of faith-based groups in public services under the Big Society will be “subject to strict safeguards to protect secularism and prevent proselytising”.

Prominent Lib Dem, and Left Foot Forward contributor, Dr Evan Harris, said:

“Increases in the use of faith-based organisations delivering essential public services will need stricter safeguards to prevent discrimination against vulnerable and captive populations on the basis of religion or sexuality, as well as to prevent employees needing to pass ‘faith tests.”

Dr Harris went on to say:

“The Lib Dems have made clear that religious organisations have as much right as anyone else to provide services, but until legal loop-holes are closed we expect the government to ensure that contracts contain non-discrimination clauses.”

“The party has made clear that it does not want the government to sanction ‘proselytising on the public purse’ when local councils or health bodies award a contract to a faith-based group.”

Only last week a Vatican cardinal, Robert Sarah, said in a speech to the General Assembly of Caritas International, that Catholic charities must evangelise.

Cardinal Sarah said:

“Regarding coordination with the charitable organisations of the Church … it is not merely philanthropic and humanitarian assistance aimed at relieving a certain kind of distress, but also and above all it entails giving back to human persons all their dignity as children of God, and promoting an anthropology that also encompasses the religious dimension of human persons, namely their encounter with God.”

To put these priorities more bluntly, the Cardinal reminded the audience:

“Today, dear Friends, the tragedy of modern mankind is not lacking clothing and housing. The most tragic hunger and the most terrible anguish is not lack of food…”

“It’s much more about the absence of God and the lack of true love, the love that was revealed to us on the Cross.”

This has echoes of Mother Teresa’s infamous Nobel prize acceptance speech where she said “the greatest destroyer of peace is abortion”.

As The Guardian report this comes against the:

“Backdrop of recent tie-ups between local government and faith groups, seeking to play a role in provision of services in potentially sensitive areas, such as advising on sexual health.

“In east London, a new website aiming to promote sex education for young people “using a faith sensitive approach” has been launched after receiving funding from health authorities. It follows a recent controversy in south-west London over Richmond council’s awarding of a £89,000 contract to the Catholic Children’s Society, which will be involved in advising pupils on issues including contraception and teenage pregnancy.”

The coalition government have made clear their commitment to involving religious groups. Lib Dem Andrew Stunell, under secretary for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) has repeatedly claimed that faith-groups are “integral to creating the Big Society“. Cabinet member baroness Sayeeda Warsi has argued; “faith communities have to play an intrinsic part in the vision for a big society”.

This has led the British Humanist Association to ask if there is room in the project for the non-religious. They write:

“We strongly believe that an attempt to engage with groups on their perceived religious identity, rather than as individuals, is a flawed approach likely to deepen divisions and tensions in society.”

The government must answer questions over the accountability of faith groups and others supporting the Big Society, and their role in delivering public services to national non-discriminatory standards.

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