Did you know it is Labour policy to subsidise religious groups so they can be in a position in in the near future to take over chunks of our welfare state? Do you think this is a good Labour policy, and wouldn't you like at some kind of nominal consultation and debate to take place over this apparent policy-by-sofa?
Take a look at this press release from the DWP issued yesterday. There we have it in plain English:
"The role of faith based groups in ensuring people have access to welfare services will be of growing importance over the coming years said Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform, Jim Murphy."
The TUC are campaigning on the impact of the privatisation of public services and the Union Futures blog points out the poor record of some voluntary groups who are being encouraged to take over local services. But these worries will be a walk in the park if faith groups are allowed to wrest control of welfare services.
Faith based welfare is anti-progressive, anti-social democracy on so many levels it's hard to know where to start. Firstly, the big picture, it is simply wrong to deploy the considerable power and resources of the state to support religious conversions and entrench the power of so called faith "leaders" in local communities. It represents an unacceptable threat to the freedom of belief of our citizens. It will put vulnerable people who are in social need in the position of having to go through faith groups (NB ultimate aim...more converts) to obtain the resources or help they desperately need. It gives power to faith groups over vulnerable individuals and excluded communities.
It will inevitably lead to an explosion of discrimination within local social and welfare services. As with faith schools faith groups will argue they need to discriminate in who they employ in order to protect their "ethos". They will argue that it is their right to express their religious viewpoints in the conduct of their work and certainly within any building or room they work from. They will refuse to offer certain services to certain individuals based on a mixture of beliefs and bigotry - women and gay citizens will suffer the most here. An expanding number of jobs in social services will only be open to people with the "right" beliefs.
With all of these terrible risks, what on Earth can be the pressing need for handing over our money to these groups. In the press release Jim Murphy talks about "links" to communities and individuals, perhaps forgetting faith groups don't represent communites, and is the DWP really saying the only way it can improve the take up of some its services is to create a whole new tier of George W Bush style faith based welfare?
The one example used in the press release that involved an organisation called Employment Focus consisted of some job traning for 10 people- all very good. But the report (opens a word doc) on the project shows a worrying and slightly weird obsession with the religious views of those who took part. Look at this quote, I wonder if they would have been happy with an atheist in the group?:
"The 10 Newham residents participating in the training and work experience proved to be a very good group with whom to pilot this programme. The majority of them, 7 men and one woman, are Muslim and one, a woman, is Hindu. The youngest member of the group, just 17, is Christian. The members of the group are of Afghan, Pakistani, Indian, Mauritian and Swedish origins. The group's supervisor, from Alpha Building Services & Engineering, is an Indian Sikh and his contribution has been of enormous value."
Bush visiting a faith welfare project. Do we really need churches to be running courses in clerical office skills?
There's a briefing here outlining the case against faith based welfare in the USA, and here in the UK
The National Secular Society has asked the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee to recommend clarifying the law to ensure that when a public body delegates functions such as faith based welfare to a private body, the latter is subject to a duty not to act in a way which is incompatible with human rights. Public authorities are already required not to act in contravention of human rights but recent judicial decisions have cast doubt on the extent to which private organisations to which public functions have been delegated are also subject to the same duty.