The missing link between faith groups and government that Labour hopes to repair

Interfaith week 2022. Image credit: Interfaith Network

By Ruth Peacock

The government ban on talking to the Muslim Council of Britain was “absolutely absurd”, according to Sir Stephen Timms, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group of Faith in Society.

And he was confident that a Labour government, if elected, would talk to them.

Sir Stephen was speaking at a Religion Media Centre briefing on the future relationship between faith groups and the government.

Professor Adeela Shafi, from the Bristol Muslim Strategic Leadership Group, said Muslim organisations felt alienated from and ostracised by central government, which has led to distrust and a breakdown in relationships.

There was no mechanism, she said, for local Muslim leaders to tap into central government and no real seat at the table or structure for Muslim organisations to speak to government and vice versa.

Structures exist for liaison between the Church of England, the established church, and the state. Richard Chapman, CofE head of parliamentary affairs, described how bishops took on subject briefs and with their teams, and engaged in conversations with government ministers and departments.

Marie Southall, director of partnerships and public affairs for the Catholic bishops, said they worked most closely with the Department for Education because of the number of schools they ran. Outside regular contacts they would lobby ministers in the same away as any other organisation.

But for most other faith groups, there was no established structure.

The briefing heard that during Covid, the faith minister of that time and his team organised virtual round tables with faith groups, which was an important method of communication, and uncovered issues that would have gone unnoticed. But since the pandemic passed, these have not functioned and there was a vacuum.

The Conservatives did not put up a spokesman for the briefing. But Colin Bloom, the former faith engagement adviser, now no longer involved with the Conservative Party, said he would like to see those round tables re-emerge.

When he left his role last year, he produced a report with 22 recommendations including the appointment of a faith commissioner, or faith “czar”, who would be “bilingual”, conversant in politics and theology. Their role would be to ensure consultation took place. There are commissioners for children and justice, so to omit religion was “a massive oversight” he said. Labour’s plan includes a faith minister who would lead on engagement with faith communities.

Sir Stephen said he believed the party would definitely want more dialogue with faith groups and criticised this government’s withdrawal of support to the Interfaith Network, a decision he described as “extraordinarily foolish”.

While there was no commitment to reconstitute that organisation, he said interfaith dialogue was needed more than ever at this time, given what was happening in the world. Labour’s approach to faith groups had been profoundly altered since Covid and the cost-of-living crisis, when faith groups provided essential support to vulnerable people, through their extensive and deep contacts in society.

The experience had led to a letter from leader Sir Keir Starmer to faith leaders throughout the UK, sent on 10 June, promising the creation of strong partnerships with faith communities, the appointment of a faith minister, the promotion of faith covenants — agreements between local government and faith groups to deliver services, and engagement of faith groups in the delivery of five key manifesto “missions”.

Lord Wallace of Tankerness, a Liberal Democrat peer, said he agreed that good relationships needed to be built with faith communities, not least at local level. And at a national level, his colleagues would want to engage with faith communities.

He described the lack of a structure linking faith groups to government as “the missing link”, but pointed out that local MPs are also the route to air concerns and bring issues back to parliament.

The briefing discussed the question as to how good relations could be recovered and maintained. Phil Champain, director of the Faith and Belief Forum and a member of the newly created Faith and Belief Policy Objective, said there was no obvious answer, but it could include round tables, a consultative council, more women and young people. Their organisation wanted to be part of the process in designing such forums.

Sir Stephen suggested there would be cross-government ministerial and official structures set up to take each “mission” forward. The missions concern the economy, environment, crime, education and the NHS. Each group would involve civil society and representatives from faith and belief groups.

Several speakers outlined how faith groups were already delivering frontline support, sometimes with government grants, in partnership with local state services.

Daniel Singleton, national executive director of FaithAction, described projects in east London, such as those addressing health inequalities such as weight loss, smoking and health literacy, or providing English language courses.

Jack Palmer-White, from the Church Works Commission, described the warm welcome campaign, where people had been invited into warm spaces, a project that enabled, over two winters, 4.5 million visits, 100,000 visitors a week, and the distribution of £3 million to local spaces.

And Amrick Singh Ubhi, director of civic engagement partnerships at the Nishkam Civic Association in Birmingham, described a “micro government” round the gurdwara with centres for education, health and employment.

Birmingham was the first city to sign a “faith covenant” and the West Midlands the first regional authority to do so. The covenants are an agreement to provide a service, which he says encourages a flow of information and conversation about social needs.

Two other issues were aired. Sir Stephen stressed that there was no manifesto commitment to lift the 50 per cent cap on admissions to faith schools, a ruling that limited the number of places available to children of the same denomination as the school.

He also reiterated that Labour’s manifesto did not contain a commitment to create a statutory role for a freedom of religion or belief special envoy, unlike the Conservatives. Sir Stephen hoped the envoy role would be maintained if a Labour government were elected. The Lib Dems commit in their manifesto to an ambassador level champion for freedom of belief, omitting the word “religion”.

The briefing illustrated broad agreement among the representatives on the importance of creating opportunities for faith groups to speak to government. They were asked what differentiated their approach to faith and politics from each other.

Sir Stephen said the importance of partnering with faith groups was distinctive to the Labour Party in this election. Lord Wallace said his approach was around inclusion and the importance of being able to consult and take on different views. There were more things that united people of faith in parliament than divided them.

Mr Bloom said there was an awful lot of cross-party support on matters of faith. His plea was that the incoming prime minister should have people around him who were intellectually curious, substantial individuals, who could ensure that dialogue continued.

View the briefing on our YouTube channel here


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