Government Pushes “Faith-Based Welfare”, Despite Abuses

As the Catholic Church threatens to close down its publicly-funded adoption services because the Government won't exempt it from equality legislation, the Minister for Welfare Reform, Jim Murphy, says he is determined to promote the role of religion in the provision of welfare. Mr Murphy told a seminar in Manchester last week that the Government would be providing access to networks and resources previously unavailable to "faith" organisations.

"I have asked my Department's commercial director to develop a centre of expertise within the procurement team working with the third sector, to specifically cover the needs of faith-based groups. In doing so I want to make sure that the access to contracts for faith groups can be on an even footing with all other private and voluntary sector organisations who wish to compete to deliver our services."

The "faith community" contribution which the Government wants to tap into includes work in crime and anti-social behaviour reduction, education and social work. In return, the "faith groups" will be offered access to a vast array of Government organisations including Job Centre Plus. "Faith groups" will be given much more influence over government policy and access to money and expertise.

The Manchester event was entitled "What Role for Faith Groups in Today's Welfare State?" Jim Murphy is a devout Catholic and denied after the event that the Government's recent refusal to exempt the Catholic Church from the Sexual Orientation Regulations was a blow to his plans. "I know that the Church quite rightly feels very strongly about this," he said.

The new initiative is an attempt to formalise relationships between the state and "faith-based" organisations. Mr Murphy said: "Put simply, I believe that there is not an entirely secular solution to achieve social cohesion in our communities. It cannot be done without the partnership of faith-based groups."

Of course, this experiment to permit religious organisations to run welfare is not new. In Ireland the Catholic Church ran most children's homes, schools, hospitals and – oh, yes, the Magdalene Laundries.

In his enthusiasm to turn over our welfare state to the churches, Mr Murphy made no mention of any safeguards to protect service-users and public money from abuse. Up until now, public welfare services have been provided by secular local authorities and open to everyone without question. But when the "faith groups" get their hands on these services, who is to say what restrictions will be applied to the receipt of services? We already know that homosexuals aren't welcome at Catholic adoption agencies (run with public money); we know that non-Christians and non-believers are not wanted either as pupils or staff at a huge number of "faith schools" because they are operated (with taxpayers money) by religious organisations. We know that the churches want to pick and choose the staff who work for them, to refuse jobs and promotion to those who don't conform to their idea of what is and is not "the ideal" way to live. Will we soon see discrimination against single parents, unwed but co-habiting couples, divorcees? It's not such a ridiculous suggestion – see the story below about what is happening in Spain.

But we don't have to go to Spain to see the dangers of "faith-based" welfare. We just need to hop to Liverpool, where a convicted sex offender was allowed to go on working at a Muslim-run children's centre because the manager said that the man's conversion to Islam "wiped the slate clean."

In an extraordinary industrial tribunal hearing, the finance officer at the Al Ghazali children's centre – a woman called Roqaya Hartel – told how she became suspicious of Peter Houry when he formed close friendships with two 11 year old boys at the centre. She did a police check and discovered that Mr Houry was serving probation after a conviction for indecent assault on a 10-year old girl. When she told the director of the centre, Mr Ahmed Saif, he accused her of being "a bad Muslim" and believed Houry's conversion to Islam had wiped clean his previous misdemeanours. Ms Hartel said Mr Saif ordered other staff not to talk to her and the harassment eventually almost drove her to a nervous breakdown.

The tribunal awarded her £20,000 after hearing that she had been forced out of the centre and victimised. The centre is funded by the local authority. When asked why he had not sacked Mr Houry immediately he heard of the conviction, Mr Saif had replied: "I wanted to see something happen before I dismissed him".

Of course, there is always the risk of abuse and bad decisions whoever is operating a service such as this, but the fact that it was a "faith-based" service on this occasion had every bearing on the lamentable decisions that were taken.

The Government needs to rethink its approach to religious groups. Some of them do excellent work, of course, and we are not saying that they should all be banned from receiving public money. But there needs to be some ring-fencing of that money. If the taxpayer is footing the bill, then the money should not be used for proselytising. If public money is being used, there must be no conditions for the receipt of services – particularly no religious conditions.

Staff working for these organisations must be protected from discrimination and so should service users.

Faithworks, the leading organisation promoting the use of "faith-based welfare" says that it does not discriminate in any of the services that it offers and that it has a code of practice that it encourages other "faith-providers" to sign. That's all very well, but we know that there are groups that would never sign up to such restrictions (including the Catholic Church). If the government is so determined to go ahead with this, it really should make clear by statute what responsibilities go with using public money.

Faith-based welfare has all the makings of a disaster. The Government might think it will save them money, the faith groups might think it will give them the funding they need. But both are going to be disappointed. And it's the service users and non-conforming staff who will suffer.

Keep our social services secular. It's the only way.

See also: Bush's faith-based welfare initiative is challenged in court as unconstitutional