Simon Barrow

Questioning Demos: faith groups, social justice and public services

By Simon Barrow
January 23, 2013

This week (20 January 2013) the thinktank Demos (“ideas and action to promote the common good”) has published its report Faithful Providers, which argues that faith-based organisations should be used more as public service providers. This is an initial response to some of the headline issues the new report raises. The detail deserves and requires further attention.

It follows on from an earlier study, Faithful Citizens, released in April 2012, which claimed that religious citizens in the UK were more likely to be civically engaged in their communities, and were more likely to hold ‘progressive values’ on a number of key issues.

Faith in service provision?

Though the Faithful Providers report includes some original research and specific proposals, there is little new in its overarching idea. As Ekklesia began pointing out as far back as 2005, there has been an emerging 'new deal' between governments committed to restructuring welfare and the state, and faith groups (not least the churches) seeking a new role and status as their old ones diminish.

There was intense discussion over these issues and their impact on welfare, poverty and equality with the publication of the Church of England's Moral, But No Compass: Government, Church and the Future of Welfare report in 2008.

Back in 2010, Baroness Warsi was arguing that churches and religious groups should be given more influence and control over public services. Eric Pickles has been pushing a highly dubious 'Christian nation' agenda, alongside the notion of contracting out services to faith groups, for some time – something not addressed in the new report.

Undoubtedly, many faith groups can and do play a beneficial role in what could be called "the social economy". A good deal of this work is charitable, local, pastoral and alleviatory; there are partnerships and pacts across many sectors; but there is change advocacy and a more critical, radical challenge involved, too. Back in 2001 I was part of a project assessing this territory critically but positively, weighing both benefits and dangers. It is vital to hold the two together.

A functionalist approach

Though it is important to consider what Demos is putting forward in detail, there seems an immediate danger inherent in the predominantly functionalist language and assumptions of Faithful Providers. This is that churches and others will be ever more sucked into the role of patching up and rendering workable a system that is based on accepting some fundamentally unacceptable inequalities and imbalances. Yet as St Augustine once warned, in a different context, "charity is no substitute for justice withheld".

Faithful Providers looks at the "religious sector" generally, but with much reference to Christianity. It is not concerned with the self-understanding of churches or other faith groups, but it is instead interested in the question about how they can be "useful" to government, to communities (amorphously defined), and to what some might see as the new high priests of the 'big society'.

The question for Christians, however, needs to be "whose agenda are we and should we be serving?" Groups such as Common Wealth, Christianity Uncut, Church Action on Poverty and others (Ekklesia included) see the church's key role as radical and prophetic, not as propping up unjust structures and becoming the ameliorative arm of an increasingly de-layered state. This certainly does not rule out service provision, but it does set a different context for it to the government's Open Public Services White Paper, which is Demos' own starting point.

There the government declared an intention to make public services "more open, transparent and efficient by bringing in outside providers," in contrast to centralist, statist solutions. Those are good aims in principle. In practice, as charities and church leaders have been shouting loudly in recent days, what the coalition is doing is slashing public services, welfare, benefits, local government and jobs, while seeking to use the language of volunteering, diversity and community benefit to get private, charitable and faith bodies involved in doing at less cost, or for free, what the major political parties – with their reluctance to tax, redistribute or challenge corporate wealth – are increasingly unwilling to underwrite.

Core issues of justice and power

Significantly the Public Administration Select Committee’s hearing in June 2011 was entitled ‘Smaller Government: “Bigger Society”?' This is not an ideologically neutral agenda, and those of us who believe that Christian communities should be advocating, modelling and working towards an alternative social order have good reason to be suspicious of it. So we need to ask:

(1) Is the government's current social agenda, or the watered down version being propagated by the main opposition (slightly slower, slightly smaller cuts), the kind of approach that church and faith groups really wish to be co-opted into?

(2) Is there not a much larger, richer and more challenging conversation to be had about common wealth, social justice, universalism, resource control, redistribution, subsidiarity, empowerment, the direct involvement of 'service recipients' in policy-making, and democratic accountability in service provision?

(3) Should not a genuinely renewed partnership between sustainable public provision, voluntary effort and local economic/social initiative be based on these principles [2, above] rather than upon re-branded privatisation / contracting out, the erosion of universal welfare, triangulated 'shrink the state' ideology, and the reduction of the poorest and most vulnerable in society to dependence upon the voluntary beneficence of the 'haves' and 'have yachts'?

Many Christians who see the core Christian message as being about siding with the excluded and challenging the system – rather than the other way around – would say 'yes' to those three questions. Yet on first examination, their voices (alongside those of other faiths and none who would agree with this ground-up rather than top-down stance) would not appear to have been part of the process of producing the Faithful Providers report.

The report does say that "progressives should seek to work with social justice-minded faith groups and institutions as community organisers addressing the roots of social justice problems, rather than being mere service providers." But this appears to be less than integrated into the main body of the argument, and is focused on Community Organising (CO) – which has undoubtedly produced benefits (the 'living wage' campaign, which we have supported, is cited), but also raises further questions and about power and accountability. CO has been seen to be a steamroller in some instances, more critical voices aver.

Discrimination, proselytism, access and equality

"From employment training to drug rehabilitation, an increasing number of services once delivered by the public sector have been outsourced through the commissioning of private sector and charitable organisations. Yet faith-based providers have seen little uplift in opportunity," says Demos, in introducing the new report.

It mentions concerns about discrimination and proselytism, but seems largely to have dismissed those problems and others on the basis of investigating a select group of 20 faith-motivated organisations. However, issues of equality involving faith groups are arising all the time in the real world and in the legal system, while parliament has resisted making changes (for example in the Decentralisation and Localism Bill) to prevent discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief.

Even the otherwise commendable Faithworks Charter for public service (not mentioned by Demos, but see below) omits employment equality. Faithful Providers rather uncritically defends religious groups hiring members of their own faith exclusively as employees, and believes that the government should protect this 'right'. In so doing, it echoes the unwillingness of the major parties to consider a fairer approach. This is disturbing, as is the wider frame it overlooks.

Exemptions in the Equality Act 2010 (which are limited, but which some believe go too far) specifically allow religious organisations that provide public services to discriminate on the grounds of religion and belief. Some legal cases (for example the Leonard Cheshire case and YL v Birmingham City Council) have set a precedent that organisations in the private sector contracted by the state to provide public services, including faith bodies, do not qualify as ‘public authorities’ under the Human Rights Act 1998.

The effect of this is that anyone discriminated against by a religious group providing public services would not be able to use the Human Rights Act to challenge this discrimination in the courts. Such issues cannot be sidestepped with a vague appeal to goodwill. The government still appears to think that private providers of publicly-funded health and social care services are covered by the HRA, but there are serious issues to explore here.

The report's author points to religious foundation schools as an example of acceptable existing faith-based provision. But at present these are able to impose belief-based selection in admissions, employment and practice – critiqued, incidentally, by the Accord Coalition for inclusive schooling, a joint religious and non-religious alliance arguing for non-discriminatory reform, of which Ekklesia is a co-founder.

Moreover, whatever one thinks of these exemptions in education, it would hugely and deeply damaging for equal treatment and universal provision if such selective practices were transferred to welfare. Imagine a hospital run by groups that reserved the right to give priority treatment to members of their own communities, for example.

Regarding proselytism, Faithful Providers is somewhat confused. It is against forcing beliefs on people in an "aggressive" way, but says that service commissioners should not "demand that faith-based providers not proselytise at all." This could create some interesting challenges in terms of the inter-faith cooperation the report partially recommends as a requirement for state funding.

The ‘saving money’ driver

Faithful Providers "argues that local authorities stand to benefit both financially and through improved community relations if religious groups are brought into service delivery." Again, "commissioning faith groups to provide services can save money and strengthen a community," says lead author Jonathan Birdwell.

Note that both of those formulations put saving money first, as do the whole raft of welfare and service changes the government is currently introducing – though the Demos report also argues that: "Local authorities should cease to view commissioning as purely an economic decision, and instead consider the added social value that charitable and faith providers bring."

The subtext will be clear and different to those living and operating at the sharp end, however. Perhaps it is reflected in the take of the Local Government Chronicle, which headlined its report 'Faith groups can cut costs, think tank concludes' (22 January 2013), and added: "Faith-based groups are more likely to be staffed by volunteers and paid staff who are willing to 'work long hours for little pay', according to researchers working on its Citizens Programme workstream."

Moreover, it appears that Demos wants to get religious groups involved in propping up the government's ailing, failing Work Programme, with backing from the shadow employment minister. Various faith-based organisations, including the Salvation Army and the Faith Regeneration Foundation, are already involved in the Work Programme as subcontractors.

But they are also mired in controversy over 'workfare', with Christian groups among those most vocal in their condemnation of religious and charitable collusion with initiatives that, as Boycott Workfare argues, "profit the rich by providing free labour, whilst threatening the poor by taking away welfare rights if people refuse to work without a living wage."

All in good faith?

The report commends the personal motivation of faith-based providers and a ‘holistic’ approach in areas like rehabilitation. It also wants religious service providers of different backgrounds to be required to work together when they receive public funds, in order to provide "integration, a greater sense of community and stronger local institutions".

There are important, positive questions to be explored here, along with much stronger safeguards and frameworks to be considered. But there are also, it might be observed, huge gaps in understanding and critical appreciation – not least in the tensions that exist within and between religious communities, the dangers of some groups using a provider position to push their own agendas, the different and sometimes incompatible forms of motivation among faith groups, the difficult questions raised by research on cohesion (the Cantle report, etc.), the issues of non-discrimination and exemptions, equal access, the rights of non-believers, evenness of provision, costs of monitoring and regulating properly, and so on. The reality is that "religious providers" come in all shapes and sizes, and generalisations, either to co-opt or to dismiss, are not helpful.

Faithful questioning and radical advocacy

We began by observing that what is read in a report like Faithful Providers has a wider history and trajectory. In 2007, in 'Service provision: Why does government want to court the churches?', Ekklesia set out some revised observations about the 'new deal' we saw being forged by government in relation to the co-option of faith communities into service provision.

This followed Jonathan Bartley's observations, warnings and predictions in his earlier book Faith and politics after Christendom. We were first addressing these issues towards the end of the Blair era and as the thinking that would emerge as the slippery concept known as 'big society' was emerging.

Much has changed in the intervening five-and-a-half years, undoubtedly, but what we said then is worth drawing attention to as we all absorb and reflect further on the new Demos report.

At that time we pointed out that: "As the direct, historic Christendom alliance of church and governance has weakened dramatically in recent years, so the relationship between church and state in a country like Britain has changed. It has moved toward accommodation to a set of mutually reinforcing interests which reflect crises in both faith communities and in the national political and economic order."

Our conclusion still seems pertinent in the light of the publication of Faithful Providers, and hopefully provides a context in which to consider not just these latest proposals about religious groups and public service provision, but a different, radical "social agenda" and range of strategies for churches and other faith groups who want to live towards an alternative, and in so doing to help change the system, alongside others, rather than find themselves a comfortable, establishment niche within it.

We said [Bartley and Barrow, 2007]: "The push of the 'new deal' is towards delivery (measured in targets and statistics), motivational capacity, professonalisation and public work understood as provision rather than empowerment. It is a functionalist agenda wrapped in soothing words about 'community benefit'. The question that the churches need to ask themselves is whether they want their contribution to civic life to be based upon such functionalism – rather than, for example, upon a radical stand for social justice rooted in the gospel. Taking state funding or a role on behalf of the state or corporate interests runs the risk of buying into top-down policy goals and targets rather than a vision of a different kind of social order. It runs the risk of blunting the church’s prophetic calling to question power. Politicians are quite happy to accept Christians and those of other faiths who serve their local communities diligently. They are less happy with a church that challenges the status quo."

This is why a more questioning, prophetic (‘speaking truth to power”) and grassroots approach is needed than the one set out in Faithful Providers. We will be suggesting a different framework of understanding and engagement for churches, in particular.


* To view and download Demos’ Faithful Providers (January 2013) go to: http://www.demos.co.uk/publications/faithfulproviders The report has come out of a project (‘Exploring the role of faith in politics and society’) guided by an Advisory Committee made up of faith leaders across the major religions, politicians, academics and some community figures, chaired by Stephen Timms MP. It is financially supported by the Bill Hill Trust, whose primary object is not to defend universal welfare provision, or to extend cooperation between faiths and beliefs, but “the advancement of the Christian religion”.

* ‘Keep faith in religious providers, urges think tank Demos’ (press release) - http://www.demos.co.uk/press_releases/keepfaithinreligiousprovidersurges...

* Faithful Citizens (Demos, April 2012) - http://www.demos.co.uk/publications/faithfulcitizens

* James Legge, Get religious groups on board with Work Programme, think tank urges, Independent, 22 January 2013 - http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/get-religious-groups-on-bo...

* Vivienne Russell, ‘Call for greater public service role for faith groups’, Public Finance, 21 January 2013 - http://www.publicfinance.co.uk/news/2013/01/call-for-greater-public-serv...

* Jonathan Werran, 'Trust faith groups to deliver local services, report urges', LocalGov.co.uk, 21 January 2013 - http://www.localgov.co.uk/index.cfm?method=news.detail&id=108543

* Keith Cooper, 'Faith groups can cut costs, think tank concludes', Local Government Chronicle, 22 January 2013 - http://www.lgcplus.com/briefings/services/faith-groups-can-cut-costs-thi...

* Terry Sanderson, 'Faith-based welfare – the push goes on', National Secular Society, 22 January 2013 - http://www.secularism.org.uk/blog/2013/01/faith-based-welfare--the-push-...

* Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), 'Equality Act 2010' - http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/legal-and-policy/equality-act/

* British Institute for Human Rights, 'Briefing on the Health and Social Care Act 2012: Some Initial Human Rights Issues' (*.PDF Adobe Acrobat document) - http://www.bihr.org.uk/sites/default/files/Health%20and%20Social%20Care%...

* 'Service provision: Why does government want to court the churches?', by Jonathan Bartley with Simon Barrow (Ekklesia 2007) - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/6217

* Chapter 8, 'The New Deal', in Jonathan Bartley, Faith and politics after Christendom: the church as a movement for anarchy (Paternoster Press, 2006).

* More from Ekklesia on the government’s cuts agenda: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/governmentcuts

* 'Big society, small cash?', by Vaughan Jones, Ekklesia, 22 June 2010 - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/content/big-society-small-cash

* 'Government not acting on religious discrimination in public services', Ekklesia, 8 April 2011 - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14524

* 'Churches should not misuse public service ethos, says bishop', Ekklesia, 17 September 2010 - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/13125

* ‘Don't get trapped by the state, says Christian charity head’, Ekklesia, 10 June 2008 - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/7268

* 'Concerns raised about faith-based public services', BHA, 30 August 2012 - http://humanism.org.uk/2012/08/30/news-1103/ See also the BHA's 2007 report, launched in conversation with religious groups and trade unions, Quality and Equality: Human Rights, Public Services and Religious Organisations (*.PDF Adobe Acrobat document) http://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/public-services-reform/quality-and-equa...

* Faithworks Charter: a set of 15 principles for churches and Christian agencies to sign up to, in order to demonstrate this commitment as they serve their local community. http://www.faithworks.info/about-us/faithworks-charter

* ‘Faithworks responds to report challenging religious service providers’, Ekklesia, 30 November 2007 - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/6396

* Stephen Timms MP [chair of the Demos report group], 'Labour can't afford not to engage with faith', Guardian, 29 September 2010 - http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/sep/29/labour-engage...

* 'A friend in deed? From care to community', by Simon Barrow - in (ed.) Michael Simmons, Street Credo: churches in the community (Lemos & Crane, 2000).

* 'Churches as small-scale conspiracies of hope', Simon Barrow, in Jeanne Hinton and Peter B. Price, Changing Communities: church from the grassroots (CTBI, 2003).

* Church of England, Moral, But No Compass: Government, Church and the Future of Welfare (Mathew James Ltd, with the Von Hugel Institute, St Edmunds's College, Cambridge, 2008).

* 'Row breaks out over report to Church on its welfare role', Ekklesia, 8 June 2008 - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/7257

* ‘Close discrimination loopholes for faith groups in welfare, government urged’, Ekklesia, 26 June 2008 - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/7379

* ‘Church and welfare debate continues as new report is published’, Ekklesia, 10 June 2008 - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/7266

* ‘Communities minister fuels debate about churches and public service provision’, Ekklesia, 3 November 2007 - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/6081


* Common Wealth: Christians for economic and social justice: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/CommonWealthStatement

* Christianity Uncut: http://christianityuncut.wordpress.com/

* Church Action on Poverty: http://www.church-poverty.org.uk/

* Zaccheus 2000 Trust: http://z2k.org/

* Accord Coalition for inclusive schooling: http://accordcoalition.org.uk/

* Boycott Workfare: http://www.boycottworkfare.org/


© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He has a long history of involvement in church-based projects, community development, advocacy and campaigning, and has been writing and reflecting on these issues for over 20 years.

Ekklesia is an independent think-tank seeking to examine the social, political and cultural role of religion, beliefs and values in a creatively critical way. It also aims to advance ideas in a range of policy areas from a forward-thinking, theologically resourced perspective. Ekklesia is deeply rooted in the Christian tradition, but is ecumenically nonconformist in outlook, and not tied to any one denomination or church body. http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/about/values

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