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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Government working on a charter that will ensure “faith-based welfare groups” don’t abuse public money

Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Hazel Blears, has told a meeting of the Evangelical Alliance that the government is working on a “fairness charter” for religious groups that are given public money to provide welfare services.

At the meeting on Thursday, Ms Blears, sounding more like a Minister of Religion than a Minister of the Crown, quoted extensively from the Bible and praised “faith groups” for their goodness and charity and said that the Government was looking at ways of helping them through the recession.

But hidden beneath the flattering and emolient words was a clear message: we need your help to run welfare services on the cheap. This message was also tempered by the announcement that public money would come with firm conditions attached.

Mrs Blears spoke about the reluctance of some local authorities to deal with religious organisations because they were perceived to be prejudiced and discriminatory in the way they operated their services. She said: “We are starting a conversation about a charter of excellence. The charter would mean faith groups who are paid public money to provide services promising to provide those services to everyone, regardless of their background. And promising not to use public money to proselytise.”

She continued: “There’s a balance to be struck here. It’s not about trying to stop the people manning the soup kitchens or making the home visits talking about their faith if people ask, or being open about what motivates them. It is about making sure that services funded by public money are unconditional — clearly and unequivocally so — with no strings attached.’ Obviously we need a discussion about how we get that balance right. I hope that many of the people here will be part of that debate in the months to come. But when we have the charter ready — and I hope that will be by the end of this year — it will give local authorities everywhere the confidence to work with faith groups, overcoming any fear and reluctance they might once have had. ”

Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said: “Despite the apparent pandering to this right-wing religious group, Mrs Blears was actually delivering a message that many of them wouldn’t like, but which offers a measure of hope to secularists. Many of the religious groups that are clamouring for taxpayers’ money and complaining that local councils won’t cough up will not be happy to sign the charter she is proposing. I am sure some of them would rather sink in the recession than allow gay people, for instance, to access their services.

I firmly hope that she will not buckle under the inevitable pressure to water down the charter. Many of these groups will see the demand to treat the whole community fairly without favour or discrimination to be too much to swallow.”

6 February 2009

Published Fri, 06 Feb 2009