Head of faith engagement report urges government: be bold

"Does Government Do God?" report launch with Colin Bloom and Prof Andrew Davies. Image credit RMC

By Ruth Peacock

A wide-ranging 60,000-word government report on how faith groups engage in society, concludes that religion is alive and well and that the notion that faith is dying, is a myth.

Does Government Do God?, written by the outgoing government faith engagement adviser Colin Bloom, was a project that began nearly four years ago to examine whether there was a disconnect between faith communities and government.

He told a Religion Media Centre briefing that the review was long overdue. Covid lockdowns highlighted weaknesses in the relationship between government and faith groups and their buildings. This report outlines 22 recommendations to improve things.

One involves creating an independent faith champion at the heart of government, with a well-resourced core team of civil servants and experts, perhaps within the Cabinet Office or the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and able to support the prime minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief.

Religious literacy

A key proposal is to introduce religious literacy training for all public servants: this doesn’t mean downloading information about beliefs, but recognising the core place of faith in the lives of many people. The report says religious literacy is not where it should be, which makes it hard for civil servants to be efficient and effective when dealing with issues in this area.

Tim Farron, the former Liberal Democrat leader, told the briefing: “My sense is that there is an assumption in public life of an absence of faith. We assume there’s no God, we assume people don’t really believe in a God. And we’re tolerant, if you do have a faith — but we’re not that tolerant.”

Politicians, civil servants and the media should be curious and not patronising when engaging with people of faith. They would be “doing a better service to a diverse and plural society, if they were able to be curious about why people think what they think and why their faith is something more than cultural,” he said.

The Rev Lord Leslie Griffiths of Burry Port, a Labour peer, said it was a very adventurous work and he particularly welcomed the idea of creating a “faith champion” in government, to advise, avoid misunderstandings and talk about faith.

Faith communities involve people in activities all the time and when the population suffers, they are among the first to be looking for ways to serve, based on the principle of respect, which was the key to making the world a better place.

The report examines seven areas of public life where faith plays a particular part.

Freedom of religion or belief

The report was created from one million pieces of data and 22,000 responses from members of the public. Sixty-eight per cent of the Christians who responded said they believed freedom of religion or belief was under threat in the UK, and the report recommends that the prime minister’s special envoy for religion or belief should include the UK in her brief, in addition to the rest of the world.

Mr Bloom explained that the respondents thought Christianity was being marginalised and they were not free to speak about their beliefs or express their faith freely, as it may be different from the society around them.

Mr Farron was not surprised at the figure in the report. He said he heard similar views frequently and at its root was a feeling that the church was the establishment and privileged, so Christians were given a hard time.

Despite this information, Mr Bloom said this country was a very good country for freedom of religion, even though there was always room for improvement.

Faith extremism

On faith extremism, the report says the government should re-enforce the distinction between extremist Islamism and Islam. Mr Bloom said the vast majority of British Muslims were just as disgusted by Islamist terrorist attacks and Islamist extremism as Christians would be by Anders Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer.

Dr Azim Ahmed, general secretary of the Muslim Council of Wales, asked why there was nothing in the report around how the government should engage with Muslims.

Since 2009, all UK governments have refused to engage with the Muslim Council of Britain, said to be the biggest representative body of British Muslims, following comments by a MCB official on jihad. The one Muslim faith leader with an official role in government, Imam Qari Asim, who was the independent adviser on Islamophobia, was sacked in June last year after supporting the right to protest at the controversial Our Lady of Heaven film.

Dr Azim said: “Islam is Britain’s second faith. The 2021 Census confirmed this. It’s got a very vibrant, dynamic kind of civil society. But the government has had a really unique and peculiar policy, a very aggressive one for the last decade or over, where it’s boycotted the largest Muslim body.

“The UK government’s engagement of Muslims is not really discussed in this report … I mean, is the report credible given this glaring omission was one of the first things I was looking for?”

Mr Bloom agreed that the government needed to improve its engagement with all communities. But this was complicated and difficult and engagement was fraught with tensions and challenges. But he said: “The onus is on the government, you know, so I agree with you. The onus is on government. Government has tremendous resources at its fingertips, and if it worked harder and … was perhaps more creative in the way that it approached faith engagement — my report says this — then faith engagement with British Muslim communities will be different.”

The government needed to be very discerning, he said, as to who they engaged with, ensuring they were representative of their faith. But sometimes, he said this went too far. He said the appointment of an independent faith champion at the heart of government, with a team of experts supporting them, would mean relationships could be built, judgments made about appropriate liaisons and “things would be perhaps, you know, a lot fairer, a lot more balanced”.

The report warns of nationalist, Nazi white supremacy groups, sometimes using Christian imagery or connected with the occult. It mentions the rise of Hindu nationalism but said this was a smaller problem than that posed by Sikh extremism.

Eleven pages of the 160-page report were devoted to an analysis of Sikh extremism. Mr Bloom said the British Sikh community were the absolute best of British, but a tiny minority of pro-Khalistan separatist movement activists “can be very aggressive and extremely abusive”.

He said there was a duty of care to the vast majority of Sikhs let down by a sometimes-violent minority and he had talked to some who lived in fear. He knew that including this in the report would be controversial, and some people would be very upset at the line he has taken, but he would be not bullied or intimated.

Commentator Hardeep Singh picked up a line in the report which distinguished between true believers of a faith and “make believers”, people motivated by ego and prestige but who represented no one in the community.

Mr Bloom said the government needed to be aware of authentic representatives and should support brave Sikhs who stood up to the subversive bullies. He had seen evidence that certain groups muscle in and take over gurdwaras.

Crime, prisons and faith

The report recommends that there should be an urgent review of the radicalisation of prisoners, through peers, faith-based gangs and chaplains who have not been properly vetted. Options for partnerships between chaplaincies and local faith-based organisations should be explored. Religious or theological reflection should be part of the rehabilitation programme. The report says 68 per cent of prisoners report having a faith, higher than the general population. Where a prisoner becomes radicalised with extremist religious views, the prison service and the government have a responsibility to understand how religion, belief and faith can contribute to deradicalisation.

Faith partnerships

The impetus for the report was the new relationships forged between local and national government and faith groups in the pandemic, when places of worship were turned into vaccination centres, the government liaised with faith communities to deliver messages about health security, and local groups initiated their own fast response to people in financial difficulty, needing basic food or support during bereavement or simply friendship in lockdowns.

Laura Marks, who was involved in many social action faith projects, was concerned that the positive stories of faith communities coming together, especially the women, to deliver help was being drowned out by negative headlines.

Mr Bloom said the overwhelming information in the report demonstrated that faith was making a massive positive contribution. But the report could not run away from some of the challenges that exist within the faith communities. “We have a perhaps a once-in-a-generation opportunity. There are clear recommendations, and they are things that the government does need to work with faith communities to get right,” he said.

An ambitious goal in another recommendation is that the frontline work of faith groups should be recognised formally by local authorities in the Faith Partnership programme and that every local authority should sign up by December 2023.

Jeremy Simmons, policy and programme officer for FaithAction, which is promoting this scheme, said it was important that such initiatives would be long lasting.

Mr Bloom said the main aim was to get local authorities working much more closely with their places of worship. They were all in the same game: “They all want to promote human flourishing and to build stronger safer, better communities for everybody … Our places of worship are overwhelmingly schools of virtue, which encourage people to be the best versions of themselves.”

Faith and education

The recommendation that faith institutions which offer religious instruction should be registered and regulated, was born of concerns over safeguarding.

Mr Bloom said the children there deserved to have the same safeguarding controls that all of the other children in the UK enjoyed, such as everyone being properly DBS-checked and ensuring there was a full curriculum. The government had been looking at such places, such as madrasas, through the lens of counter-terrorism which affected only a small minority. Safeguarding issues were much higher.

On religious education in schools, the recommendation is that the government looks again at why it is the Cinderella subject and should encourage methods for improving the teaching of faith literacy and RE, create minimum standards for timetabling and resources and place religious studies within the new English Baccalaureate (EBacc) qualification.

Dr Kathryn Wright, chief executive of Culham St Gabriel’s Trust, repeated the need for a national plan for RE, an idea mooted in 2018 which has still not been acted upon. Mr Bloom said the government should look again at this and other recommendations and the teaching of RE went to the heart of the lack of religious literacy in society, which he has addressed elsewhere in the report. “I just wish that either this government, or whatever comes next, will be the Prince Charming that will take this Cinderella to the ball,” he said.

Forced marriages

The report says there are between 5,000 and 8,000 forced marriages a year in Britain a year but only six convictions arising from the practice in 2019-20. It recommends that the Forced Marriage Unit should be led by one secretary of state in one department, to streamline action. It also says that it should be a criminal offence for faith leaders to conduct religious and civil weddings without ensuring that both partners have willingly entered into the marriage.

Mr Bloom said: “I’m very angry that government has not done more despite its fine words, and I’m angry that previous governments haven’t done more. They’ve got to stop ducking it and they’ve got to address it.”

He did not blame the civil servants that work in the forced marriage unit, but: “I’m very critical of the ministers and secretaries of state of all governments which have basically ducked this issue. It’s happening in the Gypsy Roma traveller community. It’s happening in many, many faith communities, including the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community and the Muslim community. But it’s something that we have to tackle and I know it’s difficult.”

Of all the recommendations in his report, this was the one that he definitely wanted to see adopted.


In summary, Professor Chris Baker from Goldsmiths, University of London, said the report indicated that the government does indeed “do God” and he wanted to see dynamic policy next. Harriet Crabtree, executive director at Inter Faith Network for the UK, thought the emphasis on religious literacy was important and wanted to see how the government would collaborate with others on this important goal.

For Colin Bloom, this report publication marks the end to his work as the government faith engagement adviser and he will leave in a few weeks’ time.

He said it was up to Downing Street or Michael Gove at the Department of Levelling Up to give their response. The recommendations crossed almost every government department, but there were no surprises so he hoped swift action would follow.

He hoped they would agree to appoint an independent faith champion and he hoped the report would make a difference and that the government would be bold and courageous.


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