Faith-based welfare: the hand-over accelerates

A Bishop in the House of Lords has claimed that the Church should not face regulation when welfare and health care are handed over to it by central and local government. The Bishop of Carlisle, Graham Dow, also made a bid for a church levy from every British taxpayer.

Mr Dow said that when the Government commissioned the Church to provide welfare services, it should do so on trust and not subject it to regulation. He said: “Church projects of course would be audited, but not controlled. My opinion is that, recently, we have been building a society that is very low on trust and very high on inspection and control.”

The bishop indicated that the Church intends, where it deems it appropriate, to give priority to church doctrine ahead of open service provision – particularly where gay people are concerned.

The Bishop said: “A fundamental [area of concern], is the possibility of a clash of views in the spheres of justice and ethical values, and the implications that this would have if the church was the recipient of large sums of taxpayers’ money for the provision of welfare. The church sees part of its role as challenging existing assumptions and values, and being an advocate for those with little voice or power. We must be about advocacy as well as about delivery.”

He continued: “In spite of huge areas of agreement on the welfare of our citizens, it is increasingly possible that differences could lead us into significant difficulty over, for example, protection for the poor or policies which challenge the Christian understanding of marriage. If the church chose to challenge certain policies and the values undergirding them, it could have government funding denied. Then it could be trapped in the unenviable position of … having to go along with a policy which compromised the position required by its faith.”

Mr Dow revealed that: “The church is signing 25-year contracts for the new academies. Christian groups bidding to deliver dentistry are getting 20-year contracts.”

The bishop also put the case for Britain to have a mandatory church tax, as is operational in Germany and some Scandinavian countries. He said: “Both Government and church are well aware that in the Scandinavian countries and Germany the church provides extensive welfare services. These countries have a church tax, which is paid by most citizens. The money received through taxation is returned to the church in support of its ministers, its buildings and in making possible the extensive welfare work done in its name. I admit that I have sometimes wished that we had a church tax in the United Kingdom. Because welfare provision in these European countries is long-standing, the arrangements for financial provision offer financial security to the church and its welfare institutions. The church is treated as a partner, and its work is trusted, rather than controlled.”

Bishop Dow revealed that the Government had, for more than two years, “been in conversation with church leaders about the possibility of the church providing extensive welfare services, rather in the way that the church plays a major part in education.”

Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said: “This is our worst nightmare come true. It is only by this sort of off-the-cuff remark that we know all this is going on behind closed doors. Does the British public know that dentistry is being handed over to religious groups? Our welfare services are being religionised by stealth.

Mr Sanderson said: “The Church of England is making clear that it wants to take over public services that have been traditionally open to all without question and that it wants the right to discriminate against service users if it deems them to be in conflict with their doctrines – particularly gay people or those cohabiting outside marriage. As the law stands, it can’t do that, but it is trying all the time to turn the clock back a hundred years. We need urgent reassurances from the Government that they will not allow the Bishop of Carlisle’s vision of social welfare ever to come into being. He sees the provision of welfare services as an instrument of control. We have seen how religious bodies are forcing unwilling parents into church with their ruthless control over schools. Let’s hope that we don’t have to produce a vicar’s letter, as we do for some Church schools, in order to have our teeth fixed or to deny our sexuality in order to gain access to an old folks home.”
Read the whole of the bishop’s speech here

1 February 2008