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Newsline 25 January 2013

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Faith-based welfare – the push goes on

Faith-based welfare – the push goes on

Opinion | Tue, 22 Jan 2013

David Cameron's big society initiative could result in religion taking control of welfare provision, just as it did in Victorian times. Terry Sanderson warns against this and explains why the role of 'faith communities' should be limited and modest.

While sitting in a waiting area of my local hospital recently, I was struck by the racial and cultural diversity of those around me. There were people in hijabs and turbans, black people, white people, Chinese people and some wearing religious garb (mainly nuns).

All those people would (eventually) be seen by a doctor and receive treatment on the same basis according to need. No clinician or nurse would ask them about their religion, nobody would enquire into their marital status (unless it had clinical significance) and no-one would ask them about their sexual orientation (unless relevant to their treatment).

The doctors and nurses themselves were equally diverse and, indeed, when my turn came I was attended to by a very pleasant young woman in a headscarf. Whatever the religious affiliation of the staff, their differences were put aside while they went about their professional duties.

Living, as I do, in a large London borough, I expect I would see a similar mix of people if I went to the local social service department or housing office or my GP's surgery. All would be dealt with on an equal footing, according to the law – the secular law.

This is what we call our welfare state. It is something to be proud of, something to cherish. Something that takes care of us all when we need taking care of, without judgment or discrimination.

But lately, because of the economic downturn, there has been a move to unload some of these welfare services on to charities and religious groups. Mr Cameron's Big Society idea has given new hope to "faith-based" voluntary groups that they can access public money to take over services that the state no longer seems inclined, or capable, of providing.

The NSS has argued for a long time that this would be a regressive step.

Nevertheless, those Christians who share Mr Cameron's vision of going back to the future are busy making the case that they should, indeed, take control of the welfare system, just as they did in Victorian times.

It may not be the stated aim of these advocates of "faith-based welfare", but if their dreams were to be realised, many vulnerable people would suddenly find themselves once more reliant on the whims of charity and the prejudices of the pious.

The latest piece of propaganda in this area comes from the "think tank" Demos, which has issued a report calling on the Government to increase the involvement with "faith communities" in providing services.

The report, Faithful Providers, has been prepared by a group of people already known for their determination to get more religion into the political system in Britain – chief among them the evangelical Christian MP Stephen Timms. (The report is sponsored by an organisation called the Bill Hill Trust, whose primary objective is "the advancement of the Christian religion.")

It speaks highly of religiously-motivated volunteers, telling us that they have a special calling and are prepared to put in longer hours for less pay than their secular equivalents. But as someone who has devoted the whole of their working life to the "care sector", I feel a bit miffed at being told that my lack of religion somehow makes my contribution less valuable.

The report claims that religious groups are often denied funding by local authorities because they are perceived as discriminatory and proselytising.

The author of the report, Jonathan Birdwell, says this isn't true and that the 20 organisations that were questioned for this study (he admits this is too small a sample to have any academic significance) said they were aware that preaching and proselytising would put off young people and therefore they didn't do it (well, not much, anyway).

At the same time Mr Birdwell admits: "some organisations spoke about hiring members of their own faith exclusively as employees." He asserts that "this practice is not discriminatory" – even when carried out with public money.

He also suggests that although "aggressive proselytising" should be prohibited, service commissioners should not "demand that faith-based providers not proselytise at all... assuming that there is a plurality of service providers, there should be nothing wrong with service providers openly discussing their faith, particularly to those service users who are interested in learning more and/or open to a spiritual element."

Mr Birdwell says that those local authorities that engage "faith-based" providers should encourage them to work with other faith groups – although if proselytising is part of the service provision, it wouldn't be long before conflict and division arose.

The report explores the many initiatives that this Government and the previous two Governments have put into place to try to encourage "faith groups" not only to get involved in service provision but to try to get along with each other. Tens of millions of pounds have been spent on these schemes and still there is little to show for it.

As a major provider of "faith-based" services, Mr Birdwell unwisely points to "faith schools". This does his argument no good at all.

He should know that schools provided by churches and mosques are the epitome of discrimination – not only against service users (pupils from the wrong religion or none) but against staff, who can be selected on the basis of their claimed religion. If he imagines this is a good model for "faith-based welfare", we can look forward to a huge level of injustice and misuse of public funding.

Mr Birdwell admits that not everyone in the "faith sector" thinks the Big Society is a good way for religious groups to proceed:

"Some faith leaders have expressed reservations about engagement with the so-called Big Society agenda in evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee on Public Administration's report on the Big Society. In one example, the Bishop of Leicester stressed the limits of the Church of England's capacity to deliver public services stating that churches "cannot be an alternative to public service provision…. They cannot deliver the professionalism, they cannot deliver the resources, they cannot deliver the standards, they cannot deliver the consistency, and they should not be expected to. But what they can do is add value, they can mobilise volunteers, they can support initiatives, and in localities they can do things that are small and transformational."

This sounds like a much better plan – to "add value" to a secular welfare state rather than try to provide an alternative structure.

Surely a much more Christian approach to alleviating suffering would be to force the state to embrace its responsibilities to its citizens instead of trying to unload them on to the shoulders of organisations that are ill-equipped to manage.

If the state cannot afford to provide these services, it is not going to be able to afford to provide the level of resources that religious groups need to provide them, either.

There is a simple solution to all this.

1) Religious groups should accept that their role in service provision will be limited and modest.

2) A law should be brought into effect that states simply that all services provided with the use of public money will be delivered without discrimination to the service user, without proselytising (at any level) and without discrimination in employment.

If this were done, then levels of suspicion and mistrust would be considerably lessened. Local authorities would feel safer to dish out scarce resources in the knowledge that they would be used solely to provide the service in a neutral and inclusive manner – and would not be used to promote any particular religion.

The unconvincing claims made by Demos in its report are further undermined by the theological track records of the people who have produced it. When you know where they are coming from it does, indeed, read like rather crude propaganda.

Also see:

A Christian response from Simon Barrow of Ekklesia
Questioning Demos: faith groups, social justice and public services -

January is renewal time for NSS membership

January is renewal time for NSS membership

News | Thu, 17 Jan 2013

The move towards a secular society is reaching a crucial phase, and it is important that we keep up the pressure. But we can't do it without our members.

We want secular schools in Dublin, say parents

We want secular schools in Dublin, say parents

News | Thu, 24 Jan 2013

Pressure is building on the Irish Education minister to establish a multi-denominational school in Dublin under the Educate Together banner. Educate Together promises that "No child is separated because of his or her religion or belief system" in any of their schools.

Last chance to take part in the Scouts consultations on the Promise

Last chance to take part in the Scouts consultations on the Promise

News | Fri, 25 Jan 2013

The UK Scout Association's consultation on the 'Promise' closes on 31 January. Please add your voice to ensure scouting is open to non-believers.

Secularist of the Year – make sure you’re there!

Secularist of the Year – make sure you’re there!

News | Thu, 10 Jan 2013

Tickets are still available for the premier secular event of the calendar – Secularist of the Year. Make sure you're there!

Atheists respond in their thousands to ‘census’, but can we trust the data?

Atheists respond in their thousands to ‘census’, but can we trust the data?

Opinion | Sun, 20 Jan 2013

In an attempt to capture demographic data on the non-religious, Atheist Alliance International has set up the Atheist Census. The aim is to capture each participant's religious background, educational level, age, sex and country of residence. In addition, participants are asked which non-religious term they would choose to refer to themselves, which include 'atheist', 'humanist' and 'freethinker'.

The census website was launched in early December 2012 but crashed several hours later owing to a denial of service attack. It is not possible to determine who was behind the attack, but naturally suspicions fall on religious groups. It was re-launched without incident a week later. The census appears to have no closing date, which means it has the potential to collect data indefinitely, funding permitting: it also solicits donations. At the time of writing, one month after the re-launch, the site had attracted nearly 170,000 responses from around the world.

The first thing to strike the casual observer is that this is not a census as normally perceived. A census according to one dictionary definition is "an official count or survey, especially of a population". Censuses are carried out by governments to gather information on the country's population, their location, age, household occupancy and so on. Participation is compulsory. This contrasts with the Atheist Census which is entirely voluntary with the participants being self-selecting. The census bears more relation to a survey conducted by a market research organisation, except that the former is 'opt-in' while the latter is 'opt-out'. A normal survey is driven by the organisation conducting it while this census is mainly driven by those who choose active participation.

Another difference is that the Atheist Census is entirely web-based with no user identification required other than an email address, which opens it up to potential abuse by participants using multiple email addresses, although this is mitigated by the time and trouble that people would experience in setting up each new email address, completing the census web form, waiting for the email confirmation email to arrive and responding by clicking on the link in the email. However, people who habitually use multiple email addresses will find the task less onerous.

Another potential problem is that it is open to attack from the religious, 'data vandals' and others, who may want to distort the data by feeding in fictitious responses. However, this would require a huge and serious effort to have any significant impact and even religious people have better things to do than spending their time trying to sabotage an atheist survey: praying, perhaps. Of course, by responding to the census they would artificially inflate the number of atheist participants, which rather defeats the object.

The people most likely to respond fall into a number of categories: those who are angry at the influence of religion in their country; those who like to differentiate themselves from most of the people around them; those who are active in the atheist, freethought and secular movements around the world, and so on. Those who are atheist or agnostic but who are not angry or upset by religion and who are otherwise unconcerned will either not know about the census or will not bother to participate.

We have to take it on trust that the information that participants supply is correct; since the census is not an official government initiative, they may feel they have a licence to be flexible with facts about themselves; however they have no reason to do so other than maliciously distorting the data as the collected data is anonymous.

It is with all these caveats in mind that we can look at the data that has been gathered in the month so far. Some striking observations from the global data include:

  • The most popular title is 'atheist', with 63.6%; the least popular is 'secularist' with 1.5%.
  • The largest religious background is Christianity with 65.4% (Catholic 31.7%). "None" accounts for 17.6%.
  • Atheists tend to be highly educated: 60.1% have a first degree and 19.4% have a postgraduate degree.
  • Atheists are young: 30.4% are aged 15–24 and 36% are aged 25–34; 84.5% are under 45.
  • Male atheists outnumber female by a ratio of 3:1.

Inevitably, the largest response has been from the USA with just under 60,000; the UK response, the third largest after Brazil, has been in proportion to the USA population with nearly 12,000. If this ratio is maintained, and still considering the above caveats, it would suggest that the USA is not as religious as has hitherto been perceived; or perhaps that American atheists are more active. Interestingly, Turkey is the fourth largest response source with 10,000.

The data specific to the UK is roughly consistent with the global data.

Here are some of the UK variations:

  • 'Atheist' is a slightly more popular title: 69.7%.
  • Catholicism is only 14.3% of respondents' background.
  • Atheists are somewhat older in the UK compared to globally: the 15–24 age group is 24.6% and the 25–34 group is 25.9%; only 73.3% are under 45.
  • There are more male atheists: 77.9%, leaving only 21.6% female (there is an 'other' category which accounts for the remaining 0.5%).

This census is the largest survey of the global atheist population so far attempted and despite all the caveats it will be interesting to see how the data changes over time and whether academics and commentators will take any interest.

West London consultation on school transport changes

West London consultation on school transport changes

News | Fri, 25 Jan 2013

The London Boroughs of Barnet, Brent, Ealing, Harrow and Hounslow have launched a consultation on home-to-school transport. If you live in any of these boroughs, please take part in the consultation.

NSS Speaks Out

The reaction to the European judgment continued last week with Keith Porteous Wood giving interviews to BBC Coventry and Warwickshire and BBC Radio Sheffield.

Terry Sanderson was on BBC Hereford and Worcester.

Scottish spokesperson Alistair McBay was widely quoted in relation to the NSS complaint to the Scottish Charity Regulator about discrimination in adoption (see story above). He was in the Scottish Herald, had a letter in the Sunday Herald about Catholic claims of sectarianism, the Daily Telegraph, the BBC, Scottish Television, Pink News, The Scotsman, the Scottish Daily Express and the Press Association.

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