By Tim Wyatt
An MP’s report for the prime minister into how to harness the mobilisation of civil society during the lockdown has prompted interest within the faith sector after it called for a “new deal” between government and religious groups.
Danny Kruger, Conservative MP for Devizes in Wiltshire, said in his report Levelling Up Our Communities that the relationship between Westminster and faith communities needed to be reset, but that people of faith were a reservoir of voluntary effort which no government could ignore. But will his recommendations actually make a difference?
WHAT DOES THE REPORT SAY?
The 52-page report contains only a relatively short section specifically on faith issues, but it includes fairly sweeping recommendations. Mr Kruger argues not only did most of the UK’s social services evolve out of Christian institutions, but faith communities had a “motivation and commitment that often exceeds that of paid professionals”. Religious networks had buildings in many of the neediest places as well as long-term, deeply rooted volunteers.
But too often the state recoiled from working together with faith groups and charities, he writes, and too many religious organisations lack the professionalism needed to collaborate with Whitehall. “In general, the estrangement of faith-based social action and the public sector is a very bad thing. Faith groups have an enormous amount to offer society, but too often public servants are reluctant to partner with them,” he concludes, condemning both faith illiteracy and also “faith phobia”.
His big solution is a “new deal” — aping the words of David Cameron to the Liberal Democrats, a “big, open and comprehensive offer” — between the government and faith groups. Faith leaders should offer to mobilise their congregations and resources to tackle a specific social problem (Mr Kruger cites personal debt, children in care, rough sleeping and prisoner rehabilitation as examples), and in return the government will commit the force of the state to facilitate the faith group’s work.
This would be topped off with a new “duty of co-operation” added to all public grants and contracts, and could build on the Faith Covenant proposed by a group of MPs and peers in 2014 and now signed by 14 local authorities.
WHO IS DANNY KRUGER?
Mr Kruger, an evangelical Christian and old Etonian, is the son of the restaurateur and television presenter Prue Leith. He was elected an MP in December 2019, but has spent decades in and around the Conservative Party. He initially worked for the Thatcherite think tank the Centre for Policy Studies and then as policy adviser for the party and stood for election in 2005, but was forced to drop out after he told The Guardian that his party hoped to begin a period of “creative destruction in the public services” if elected. He then became an adviser in the Cameron-era makeover of the Conservatives, notably writing the infamous “hug-a-hoodie” speech in 2006.
In 2008 he dropped out of frontline politics to work full-time running a London charity he had founded earlier which supports ex-offenders into work. A Brexiteer, he returned to government as an adviser in 2018, before becoming Boris Johnson’s political secretary shortly after he entered Downing Street. Observers suggest he has long been associated with a clutch of Christians in the Conservative Party who came to the fore during the 2000s, are passionate about civil society and reform, and often work closely with the Centre for Social Justice, a think tank founded by Iain Duncan Smith.
In his maiden speech earlier this year, he bemoaned Britain’s gradual retreat from an identity rooted in Christian values and the rise of faceless, technocratic statism. His speech and political beliefs also echo much of the argument raised by so-called “red Tories” and even some of David Cameron’s “big society” agenda: a critique of cosmopolitan, liberal individualism and calls for a return to small-scale civil society groups and communitarianism.
In a letter to Mr Kruger, Mr Johnson thanked him for the report but offered little concrete action on its recommendations and made no mention of the “new deal” for faith communities.
Some charities working in this space have welcomed this though, including the well-connected FaithAction (which has been facilitating much of the government’s interaction with religious organisations during the lockdown). In a blog, FaithAction said it was pleased at the recognition of the value faith communities could offer, but was sceptical of the idea that no state money would be involved in their volunteering.
“We recognise that volunteering doesn’t come for free and that at a time when we anticipate a suppression of the job market, there is also a need for financial support to unlock the full potential of faith in the public square,” it said.
The BBC programme Sunday Morning Live held a discussion on the report last weekend. The Muslim journalist Shaista Aziz echoed concerns around funding, arguing that it would be wrong for the government to expect volunteers motivated by their faith to step in to plug gaps in public services caused by austerity.
Andrew Copson, chief executive of Humanists UK, said bringing faith communities into the state to provide services was problematic and could lead to discrimination. Elizabeth Oldfield, director of the religion think tank Theos, echoed much of Mr Kruger’s praise for faith groups and suggested more money or government contracts would not necessarily help matters.
Concerns about inappropriate proselytising or a lack of inclusivity by religiously motivated volunteers existed more in theory than in practice, Theos’s research had found, and therefore Mr Kruger’s main recommendation to government remained valid: “Just saying ‘We are going to get out the way and let you [faith groups] crack on with what you already do really well’.”
WILL IT MAKE ANY DIFFERENCE?
Some observers suggested that because the report was commissioned as a parliamentary not governmental document — meaning the only resources available to work on it were Mr Kruger’s own staff — plus the speedy turnaround (Mr Johnson gave the backbencher only one month to write the report) implies it was intended more as political window-dressing than substantive policy change.
Daniel Singleton, the national executive director of FaithAction, echoed these points and suggested there was limited interest in the issue at the top of government, noting how the civil society and faith minister were both now unpaid peers.
The Religion Media Centre approached the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (which is home to Lord Greenhalgh, the faith minister) to ask if it had any plans to pick up on Mr Kruger’s recommendations. A spokesman would say only that the ministry would collaborate with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and that “faith groups will be approached for feedback on Danny Kruger’s recommendations”.
Mr Singleton also relayed concerns he had heard from government officials that Mr Kruger had been too influenced by wealthy Christian organisations into recommending no government money go towards faith volunteering.
“To be able to start to do the other things [a faith leader] needs funding to be able to co-ordinate the volunteers. That’s the other bit I’m concerned Danny Kruger has not picked up on, the development and support of infrastructure,” Mr Singleton said.
In addition, many faith groups tended not to have significant experience of working with government and therefore needed funding and help at the start to build their capacity around things such as gathering statistics and reporting outcomes before they could even start to deliver high-quality services.
Mr Singleton said Mr Kruger’s report tallied with the wave of “we can just do it” Tory-linked Christians who arrived about 2010 in the height of the “big society” moment. But most faith organisations do not have significant reserves of wealth and therefore their potential volunteering could not be deployed so easily, he added.
“I think you could potentially utilise faith groups more but you have to have some kind of system of co-ordination,” he said. This could be the Faith Covenant, produced in part by FaithAction whuch is the secretariat for the all-party parliamentary group on faith and society, but Mr Singleton warned that only a handful of local authorities— and no national government body — had so far signed it.
The covenant could help deal with the “squeamishness” that some civil servants and others may have over collaborating with religious volunteers, but it worked best when it was not merely symbolic but facilitating an actual funded project underneath it, he concluded.
IS A ‘NEW DEAL’ NEEDED?
Several religious charities and denominations approached for comment shared details of what they were already doing, both during the lockdown and today. Harmeet Singh Gill, the general secretary of the largest Sikh gurdwara in London, said his organisation had never been asked by either local or national government to step in, but was driven by their faith to do so regardless. Volunteers had been delivering free meals to those shielding at home, providing medicines, and also pastoral and social support to the isolated. Nevertheless, he said his team would welcome the opportunity to work with government, in particular helping the authorities fill in the gaps through the gurdwara’s in-depth knowledge of its community and their needs.
Laura Marks, the founder of the Jewish-led faith-based social action movement Mitzvah Day, said the work of religious volunteers during the pandemic had been “phenomenal”, and built on many years of faith-led charity work before, such as the Trussell Trust foodbank network.
“There is also an issue here of how much is the job of volunteers/faith groups versus government,” she said. “Is government really prepared to fund the faith groups to use volunteers to tackle poverty — and is this right?”
The Church of England also pointed to several initiatives already underway without any need for government permission or backing. In particular, the Church Urban Fund (a long-standing Anglican anti-poverty charity) and #LoveYourNeighbour, a Christian voluntary response to the pandemic, a collaboration between a large number of faith-based charities, individual churches and denominations (partly funded by the wealthy and influential Holy Trinity Brompton network of evangelical churches). The organisation says on its website that it is already working with many local councils, as well as schools, hospitals and small businesses.