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House of Commons Hansard
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Local Government and Faith Communities
02 July 2013
Volume 565

[Mr Charles Walker in the Chair]

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It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for South West Devon (Mr Streeter) for the huge amount of work they have done to highlight the importance of faith groups in our communities, and for encouraging colleagues, including me, to request a debate on the subject. I am delighted to have been successful in the ballot, and to be in such good company in Westminster Hall today.

The trigger for this debate is the excellent report produced by Christians in Parliament together with the Evangelical Alliance entitled “Faith in the Community”. The report clearly shows that the work of faith groups is thriving, and that their contribution to society is varied and highly valued by local authorities and the communities they serve. All local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales were surveyed for the report, and 155 of them replied, which is roughly a third of the total number. It is clear from the many responses that local authorities see faith groups as valued and vital partners who are committed to their communities, serving the poorest and most vulnerable people in society.

Faith groups provide activities and services for all ages, ranging from mother and toddler groups and youth services to care for the elderly, and from street pastors to food banks. I will pick out a couple of quotes from the many local authorities that responded to the survey. Runnymede borough council commented:

“The strength of the churches is their presence in the communities and their long-term work in the parish. This is of particular benefit when working in areas of deprivation”.

Harborough district council said:

“Faith groups are based within the heart of the local community and are able to identify individuals who may not feel able to come forward and access help and support by themselves”.

The report was not all rosy, and it highlights the concerns expressed by some authorities. Those concerns can be grouped into three areas. First, there is an issue with the “people” capacity for councils and faith groups to engage with each other, and it can be difficult to ensure that they make enough space to understand each other. Examples were given of situations either where a council could not allocate staff to co-ordinate service provision with faith groups, or where churches, on occasion, were unable to deliver a service that they might have undertaken to provide.

A second challenging area is the potential for organisational culture clash. The financial and governance requirements of councils can be quite onerous and difficult to meet for faith groups that want to provide a service to their community. Sometimes local authority terminology and the complex protocols can be a bit of a barrier to success.

For me, however, the most worrying hurdle to good co-working between councils and faith groups relates to the fears and suspicions about what each partner might require the other to do. Councils expressed concern that faith groups might provide services only to their own faith community and might refuse to support people from other faiths, or from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. Another barrier was cited by Rochford district council, which said that

“a key challenge would be the potential for faith based groups to use funding for the delivery of services promoting their faith”.

Although the survey provided evidence that these perceptions are not generally borne out, as shown by the wide-ranging access to services provided by faith groups, Tamworth borough council pointed out:

“The mere fact that activities take place within a faith setting will mean that many members of the community will not attend due to a misconception that the event is an attempt to draw them into the faith group.”

North Yorkshire county council drew similar conclusions, but went on to say:

“Generally, all of these perceptions are false or can be overcome through discussion and better understanding of each other—but they do create barriers.”

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I apologise for the fact that I was not in the Chamber for the beginning of my hon. Friend’s speech, but I congratulate her on securing such an important debate. Is it not interesting that a consistent theme emerged in responses to the survey regarding organisations that have become prevalent across the country? Street pastors, for example, drive a coach and horses through some of those perceptions. The organisation is based squarely on Christians out there, rolling up their sleeves and delivering a great service, restoring confidence in the streets and helping to reduce crime.

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I will come on to the subject of street pastors shortly.

There is a great deal that can be done to lift those barriers, and I will take the opportunity to discuss just a few of the projects and groups operating around the country, including in my constituency, that make a real difference to the communities that they support. Increasingly, one of the best-known groups is Christians Against Poverty. CAP is a national charity, working across the UK to lift people out of debt and poverty. It offers free debt counselling to everyone and anyone, working through a network of 233 centres based in local churches. Each year, they help 20,000 people to find their way out of the black hole of debt, helping them to work out budgets, to negotiate with creditors and even to go through insolvency procedures. It also runs CAP money courses, which teach 10,000 people a year from across all faith groups, all belief backgrounds and so on, to budget, save and avoid debt. CAP has just launched CAP job clubs. There are 32 CAP job clubs across the UK, and the aim is to have 80 up and running by the end of the year.

The new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, spoke out last weekend in the press against the exorbitant interest rates charged by payday lenders, and he proposed that new credit unions should be set up in church halls. He pointed out that the thousands of churches across the UK are a perfect platform for such practical work to be based in, again without heed to what background, faith or otherwise that any of the individuals who might benefit from it come from.

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I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this matter to the House for consideration; it is a very important issue. Although the report she mentioned does not refer to Northern Ireland, I think that many of the things that she referred to apply to Northern Ireland. We have CAP in my constituency: it started just over a year ago and it is doing great work. There are also food banks, set up by Christian organisations, that are doing great work. Does she think that such activity, which involves people working for food banks and organisations such as CAP, and helping the less well-off, is a very practical show of Christian beliefs?

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Yes. The hon. Gentleman is, of course, quite right that CAP and other faith-based groups work right across the United Kingdom, and they help people from all backgrounds—people of faith and people of no faith. Absolutely no distinction is made between people; everyone benefits from the services. However, the reason that such groups are set up is because people of faith want to help the needy. He specifically mentioned food banks, which do a superb job across the country, and many of them are led and supported by people of faith.

A charity closer to home that I fully support, and of which my husband is a trustee, is the Northampton Hope Centre. It was set up in 1974 by a Christian gentleman who handed out food to rough sleepers—food that he had paid for himself. As more volunteers began to help him, the borough council began to provide small grants to help to pay for the food. By 1984, there were 30 volunteers—mainly Christians—and a daily food service for rough sleepers was provided all year round. In 2006, the charity officially took the name of the Hope Centre to reflect its broader range of support and services, which now included providing training and activities alongside food, showers and clothing. In 2008, the Northampton Hope Centre won the Queen’s golden jubilee award for voluntary services to the community.

Today, the Hope Centre helps those suffering from drug or alcohol addiction, mental illness, crippling debt and family disintegration. It offers a wide range of support, including food, clothing, showers, shelter, social activities, therapeutic workshops and skills development. It aims to encourage its users to recover their independence. Each user’s journey is individual and the Hope Centre aims to support each person at their own pace while creating or finding pathways for people who have all but given up hope of a better future.

The centre’s budget this year is in the region of £400,000, of which only £15,000 will come from public funding. If any Members are around this Friday and find themselves with a spare hour in Northampton, I urge them to pop down to the Hope Centre, where Terry Waite will launch the new “hope café”. One of Northampton’s most exciting initiatives in recent years is the establishment of a street pastor service, which puts compassionate people of faith in the town centre on Friday and Saturday nights, offering practical help to often vulnerable people. I blogged about this in 2006, under the heading “Flip-flops and lollipops”, because, as it was described to me, the street pastors would go out and help young people who were often extraordinarily drunk, providing lollipops to the young men, who would rather suck a lollipop than get in a fight, and flip-flops to the young women, who often lost their high heels on their first steps on the journey of inebriation. It is a practical service that offers sound support and counselling.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that no greater love can a parliamentary colleague have than to spend a Saturday night/Sunday morning with my hon. Friends the Members for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) and their street pastors, as I did a couple of Saturdays ago? The street pastors provide a fantastic service in those towns. They are the only people around, other than the police and the ambulance service, actually caring for people. Large numbers of volunteers provide a fantastic service.

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I agree with my hon. Friend, who makes a good point. It is right to pay tribute to the street pastors, who form a valuable support group for the police on a Saturday night when, too often, trouble in our streets is common.

I set up a project in 2006 with Richard Johnson, a Christian, who runs a fantastic youth centre in Uganda. He and I set up links between Northamptonshire and Ugandan schools and now each year groups of students from Northamptonshire travel to Uganda for a conference with Ugandan students. They spend their week based at the Discovery Centre in Jinja, Uganda. That has been an astonishing success, building new friendships between teachers and pupils across the miles, and new opportunities for the schools in both countries to take part in a huge range of different cultural activities.

All faith groups, whether they are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, or any other, set great store by their support for their communities. It is important that we in Parliament ensure that their voices are heard. Over the years, over-sensitivity to cultural issues and a growing, muscular secularism has meant that the amazing work done by people of faith, often for the most vulnerable, goes unnoticed. Of course, people of faith are not doing this in return for gratitude or recognition, but we should make space in public life for those of faith.

I support many of the report’s recommendations and call for three specific things. First, I should like local authorities deliberately to work more closely with faith groups, taking advantage of the support they bring to local communities, to attempt to simplify processes and jargon, and share best practice between local authorities. Secondly, I should like local authorities to look from a plural rather than a secular perspective at the services faith groups offer in their communities. The leader of Churches Together in Northampton, Ted Hale, tells me that he and many others work for non-Christian organisations such as Arthritis Care and Age UK, and so on. It is often people of faith who run such organisations.

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The hon. Lady has been gracious in accepting interventions. In my constituency, an organisation called Youth Link Northern Ireland, which is based in local churches right across the religious strata, funds work to help people who have problems with drug abuse and alcohol addiction. Does she think that the Government, and local government in particular, should work in partnership with such organisations to address the critical issues that many people do not want to bother with at all?

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Yes, the hon. Gentleman is right. Faith-based groups often work with people to whom others are not really keen to provide support.

Local authorities should consider a plural rather than a secular approach to service provision. They should recognise that even where organisations volunteering in communities are not faith based, they are often staffed by volunteers doing it for faith reasons. They should give specific recognition to that fact.

Thirdly, there is concern about a development from the Charity Commission, which is trying to suggest that certain faith groups should not be given charitable status and is effectively challenging them to provide evidence of the work they do in the community, rather than accepting that a guiding principle of faith groups is that they should contribute to the community in which they live. The Plymouth Brethren are at the moment in disagreement with the Charity Commission about their charitable status. Where we can, we in Parliament should take steps to ensure that there is not an increasing tendency to challenge the very existence of faith-based organisations.

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It is important that the charity commissioners realise that faith groups are entitled to their own beliefs, even if those beliefs seem idiosyncratic, even exclusive, to many in the secular world. This is often the nature of faith groups—the nature of their strong beliefs and the way they operate. It is worrying if secular-based organisations impose their own morality and ethos on faith groups.

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My hon. Friend is right. That prompts me to reiterate my second call to action: local authorities and all of us in public life must accept and welcome those of faith and not merely tolerate them, or try to exclude them, which happens all too often.

In conclusion, I congratulate Christians in Parliament on this important piece of work and all the support it provides for those of us who are Christians in Parliament.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom)on securing this important, welcome debate. Like her, I congratulate Christians in Parliament—and the Evangelical Alliance, which did much of the work—on the “Faith in Community” report. It is an enjoyable read. I want to contribute to this debate on the basis of my work with the all-party group on faith and society.

The hon. Lady makes an important point: a wide range of contributions are made to communities from a starting point of faith. She is right to draw attention to the work of street pastors and Christians Against Poverty, whose headquarters in Bradford I visited last month. She also mentioned food banks. If we had had this debate five years ago and asked what would happen if hundreds of thousands of people suddenly found that they were unable to afford enough food for themselves and their families, I am not sure that we would have identified faith groups as the institutions that would come forward to meet that need, but they certainly have done. The Trussell Trust reports that 750,000 people resorted to one of their food banks last year. It is currently opening one new food bank per day, such is the scale of the need, which it is meeting impressively.

The all-party group on faith and society, supported by FaithAction, which provides its secretariat, was formed in April 2011 and aims to promote understanding of faith-based organisations engaged in social action in the UK, to promote recognition of their value and to consider regulatory and legislative arrangements that can make the most of the potential contribution of faith-based organisations around the UK. The group took evidence from some innovative faith-based organisations in this country.

We had four meetings focusing on the following areas: welfare to work, in respect of which faith-based groups have been doing impressive work; meeting the needs of children and young people; health and well-being; and international development. For each meeting, FaithAction put out a call for evidence to member organisations, other networks and partners, and asked for groups to make contact if they wanted to present evidence at one of the roundtable meetings. At the meetings, we asked each group to present for five minutes on their current work, setting out what they are doing and the barriers they face.

At the welfare-to-work roundtable, for example, we spoke to the Nishkam centre, which is an impressive Sikh organisation in Birmingham. We also heard evidence at that meeting from Spear, which is based at St Paul’s church in Hammersmith. At the children and young people’s meeting, we heard from the Hawbush project in Dudley and the Pathway project in the west midlands. There were half a dozen organisations at the meeting on international development, including Jewish Care, Parish Nursing, Khalsa Aid, the LifeLine Network and Muslim Aid.

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I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for his work supporting the positive contribution of faith, not least in his position in the previous Government. In his role within the all-party group, has he reflected on how one can improve religious literacy across the country? The myth-buster document was, in many ways, one of the best documents to come out of the previous Government. Does he see the need for guidance, or would he seek to follow the role of the Department for International Development? The 2012 document, “Faith Partnership Principles” outlined the Government’s relationship with international aid, and it could be a good framework to follow in our relationship with local government, too.

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The hon. Gentleman makes some important points. The all-party group has identified three main areas of concern, the second of which, religious literacy, he has highlighted. Many, if not most, of the concerns are about the relationship with local authorities.

First, local authorities and grant-making bodies often seem to be pretty uneasy about faith playing a part in service delivery, as is highlighted in the report that prompted this debate. Consequently, faith-based organisations often feel that they ought to downplay the role and importance of faith in their work. Such organisations are absolutely clear that they cannot take faith out of their faith-based work, and if they attempted to do so, there would not be much left. That would result in a lack of integrity on their part, because faith is the heart and driving force of what they do.

Secondly, it is difficult to explain what the faith-based organisations call “faith logic” to local authority service commissioners. Jewish Care, for example, talked to us about its struggle to express the faith needs of the Jewish community in a particular local authority area to local authority officers in an understandable way—and that is in a community in which 20% of the population is Jewish. Similar concerns were raised in other discussions, and there is a widespread perception, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, of religious illiteracy among local authority officers—not malice, I do not think, but difficulty in understanding what such organisations are about and how best to relate to them.

Such religious illiteracy has led to local authorities being hesitant to work with faith groups. One organisation that presented to us described how there was often scepticism about whether its services are professional, even though the organisation in question is accredited by Ofsted. Another organisation found that its local authority is reluctant to work with a single faith group in case doing so offended other faith groups. Such problems are often the result of a misunderstanding, rather than malice.

Thirdly, some local authorities are just not aware of the work undertaken by faith-based organisations in their area.

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It is even more serious than that. As far as I know, there is not a single Catholic adoption agency left working in this country, despite the fact that they all worked with the most vulnerable people. They were all forced to close down because they were told by local authorities that they had to abide by equality legislation, which trumps everything. Catholic adoption agencies were not prepared to allow same-sex couples to adopt children, so they have all closed down. There is a serious attack on faith-based organisations and their ethos.

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I would favour local authorities being encouraged to undertake a faith and service audit, which would potentially identify areas for collaboration between different faith groups. It was emphasised in our meetings that such research is potentially important in discovering good initiatives that may otherwise go unnoticed and unsupported.

It is important to underline that the groups that attended the roundtables have long-term goals. They expressed their commitment to continue serving the needs of their areas, even when funding is hard to come by. Sometimes that is made easier by the resources that come with faith-based organisations, such as a large base of volunteers, resources, motivation and drive to do the work they are doing, which is unique to such faith groups.

I have also been chairing the Demos inquiry into faith, society and politics. Demos has published two of the three volumes in its series of studies, the second of which, “Faithful Providers,” considers faith group involvement in public service delivery. In particular, Demos has considered the concerns that are sometimes raised about what faith groups do when they deliver public services, and from its discussions with a number of groups it found no evidence to support such fears. As Demos is not a faith-based organisation, it is worth drawing attention to what it says. It found that faith groups are “highly motivated and effective” in instilling a public service ethos, and that they

“often serve as the permanent and persistent pillars of community action within local communities.”

Demos also found that faith groups are

“acutely aware of the need to be inclusive, keep religion ‘in the background’ and not abuse the power imbalance between service provider and user.”

That captures well the reality of what such organisations are doing.

Finally, we can all see that there are big challenges ahead for our communities. The pressing question is how we can make the most of the potential contribution of faith-based groups in addressing those challenges. The all-party group proposes to draft a covenant that could act as the basis for a fresh conversation between local authorities, and public authorities more generally, on the one hand, and faith communities on the other hand. Similar things have been considered in the past, and I know that the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) has done some good work on that. The idea of a covenant would be to commit the faith communities that sign up to it to playing their part in addressing some of the pressing community needs and to meeting a set of very high standards, including providing assurances that they would not do the things that sometimes people suspect they might do, while also permitting them to be faithful to the convictions that are the reason for what they do. I hope we will be able to make some specific proposals along those lines quite soon.

The previous Archbishop of Canterbury said:

“The trouble with a lot of Government initiatives about faith is that they assume it is a problem, it’s an eccentricity, it’s practised by oddities, foreigners and minorities.”

It should not be like that, and if that impression has been given by authorities in the past, it must not happen in the future—we cannot afford for that to happen in the future. A clear and fair covenant that recognises the unique position of faith groups may go some way towards addressing those problems.

I warmly welcome this debate, and I very much hope that we can make considerable progress in this important area.

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I am wholeheartedly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) for introducing this debate. I endorse everything said by her and by the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms)—I can confidently reassure him that this Government do not treat people of faith as oddities, minorities or foreigners.

Perhaps a couple of days after I was appointed Second Church Estates Commissioner—it was on one of my first visits to Lambeth palace, so it must have been very early in the life of this Parliament and the coalition Government—one of the first visitors through the door was the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Lambeth palace has big doors, and the Secretary of State was the first through them for a gathering with the Archbishop of Canterbury and other faith leaders.

At the outset, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made it clear to the Archbishop of Canterbury, other faith leaders and people such as myself that he and the Government wanted to work with faith communities. He reinforced the Near Neighbours programme, which has done excellent work in Leicester, Bradford, parts of Birmingham and east London, in and near the constituency of the right hon. Member for East Ham. Throughout, the Secretary of State made it clear that he took a practical and pragmatic approach to central and local government working with faith groups.

I appreciate that others wish to speak in this debate, so I shall be brief. However, as this is a debate about Christian action, I hope that hon. Members will excuse me if I make a slightly theological point. There is no way for the state, either centrally or locally, to deliver every human service. The state cannot deliver compassion, comfort the bereaved or relieve people of their loneliness. As it happens, I have hanging in my sitting room at home one of those illuminated Biblical addresses, although it is rather more an instruction than an address, which is from chapter 25 of St Matthew. Jesus is asked:

“Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome, naked and clothe you, sick or in prison and go to seek you?”

Jesus does not reply to the Roman authorities or the Jewish state; he replies entirely to us as individuals:

“Then shall he answer them, saying, ‘Truly I say to you, in so much as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ And these shall go away into everlasting punishment, and the righteous into life eternal.”

The New Living Translation puts it another way:

“And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’”

When Jesus was asked, “How do you help those who are thirsty, hungry or in prison?” he said not, “This is the responsibility of the state,” but, “This is the responsibility of you as Christians and as human individuals.” That is a fundamental acknowledgment that we must get our minds around. We, as Christians or as human beings, cannot simply shift all responsibilities on to the state, because the state does not have the capacity to give that human compassion and do all the other things. The state can help to support hospices for the dying, but it is the hundreds of volunteers who help to run hospices who make all the difference.

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I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments. A number of weeks ago, I took part with street pastors in some of their outreach work. I witnessed the compassion that he mentioned from young people of the Christian faith who were doing fantastic work among drug addicts and alcoholics. Such work has transformed lives, and our young people have a lot to contribute to that.

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I am grateful for that intervention.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) made some observations on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church, so I hope that hon. Members will excuse me if I make a couple of observations on behalf of the Church of England. The Church of England is, of course, a national church. The whole point of the Church of England is that it divides the whole of England into parishes, and every parish has a priest who is responsible for that parish. Archbishop Temple once observed that the Church of England was one of very few organisations that existed for the benefit of people other than its own members. The Church has a mission to the whole community. It must be, and is, a national Church.

Recent research by the Church Urban Fund found that thousands of parish churches throughout the country play an active role in their local communities by running lunch clubs for the elderly and after-school clubs for children in deprived areas, and helping to run food banks, as the right hon. Member for East Ham observed. In fact, some 6,500 parishes in England run organised activities to address at least one social need in the community.

What was interesting about the Church Urban Fund’s research findings was that parishes based on council estates and in inner cities were the most likely to be active in the community. Some 80% of Church of England parishes on council estates run activities to address at least one social need. In my experience, they do so with other faith groups. The street pastors, food banks and other initiatives that I have seen involve faith groups working together, and I do not think that there is any problem with that.

Every day, throughout the country, thousands of faith-based volunteers quietly go about helping the elderly, isolated people and toddler groups, or doing more difficult work in drug rehabilitation programmes. In Oxfordshire, we have a programme that meets people who have been released from prison—literally at the prison gate—to give them support as they return to the community. In hundreds of different ways, such work is done patiently and tirelessly every day.

During my time as a Second Church Estates Commissioner who takes a particular interest in this issue, I have not come across any instances of faith groups or churches saying to me that they feel frustrated or thwarted because local government has not understood them. The idea of a covenant, as proposed by the right hon. Member for East Ham, is extremely interesting and probably well worth pursuing, but I would hope—and I see this throughout the country—for partnerships between faith groups, and local government and other organisations. When I recently went to Wellingborough and Kettering to see street pastors at work, what impressed me was that at the beginning of the evening, senior police officers came in to brief them about what was happening in the community that night, how things were in the town and what they expected. Those street pastors had the full support and respect of the local police and the local authority, which was much appreciated. Whether helping to tackle isolation, family breakdown, debt or homelessness, or supporting people on low incomes, or with mental health or drug and alcohol abuse problems, people of faith are present. I would hope that central and local government will continue to work out how to maximise that synergy.

Occasionally, reality breaks out in the Palace of Westminster, and one reality that has broken out in the past couple of weeks is that the welfare budget is not going to grow exponentially. Members on both sides of the House, including the shadow Chancellor, have acknowledged that, so we will all have to be smarter, cleverer and wiser about how we work within the parameters of the existing welfare budget, which is huge. The House of Commons Library tells me that the total spent on welfare is forecast to be £204.1 billion this financial year. In 2016-17, that will rise to £218.2 billion in cash terms, or £206.9 billion at this year’s prices, so we will go from £204 billion to approximately £207 billion in three years’ time, and we will all have to work within that budget. Given the opportunity, faith groups have the capacity and ability to do much with central and local government.

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The “Faith in the Community” report, which was produced by the Christians in Parliament all-party group in conjunction with the Evangelical Alliance, is important in many ways, not least because it has helped to highlight the sheer extent and value of faith groups’ contribution to local communities throughout the country. Many local authorities acknowledged that they were unaware of the extent of the voluntary work that is often quietly done by people of faith.

As Andrew Taylor, a minister at Union street Baptist church in Crewe, said in a report aptly named “Hidden Treasure in Cheshire East: Faith Action Audit”:

“One of the calls of the Christian faith, as other faiths, is that we should love and serve our neighbours, usually quietly and without expectation of recognition and reward. This does not mean that acknowledgement and appreciation are not welcome.”

That work is often done quietly, so it has often gone unnoticed and unappreciated, and we have not been as supportive as we could be in our local communities or as a wider society, so I hope that the “Faith in the Community” report will go a considerable way towards changing that and helping to build the capacity of faith groups that have a desire to make an even greater contribution to our local communities. I therefore want to use the debate to say thank you to faith groups across the country and to send a message of thanks from the House to those groups for their invaluable contribution in our local communities. I also want to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) on securing this important debate.

I want to say thanks to the more traditionally recognised groups in our communities, such as Mums and Tots. I was interested to note the name of one such group in my local area—the Little Nutters. I also want to say thanks to those who care for our elderly, support the homeless and provide youth clubs. In addition, I want to say thanks to those who provide newer, more contemporary help, such as the debt counselling work done by CAP, Sycamore Trust’s restorative justice work in prisons, and the parenting classes run by the Let’s Stick Together project, which is promoted by Care for the Family, for couples who have had their first child. Such help also includes enterprise coaching, the provision of office space, IT training and free legal advice clinics.

The drug rehab centre in my church—the Church @ The Foundry, in Widnes—is acknowledged by the local authority to be the best in the area. In the church grounds, there are also more than 20 bungalows that were built many years ago to house and care for elderly people. That remarkable work has been sustained over decades and has been supported by the fellowship in the church.

Faith groups provide organisational skills, mentoring, language classes, bereavement counselling, anger management and emergency disaster relief—the list is endless. We also see franchise-format voluntary work, and we have heard about the street pastors. Best practice is shared among such groups, and there is also good engagement with local authorities.

A small but significant category of respondents to the “Faith in the Community” report said that local authorities have entered into formal contracts for services with faith groups. One example is the library in Grappenhall, in Warrington. I know the library well, because I was a councillor when the cabinet was deciding what to do with it. It was clear the local authority could no longer sustain it, and I have watched with great admiration as local church members have taken over that community facility and maintained it. I pay tribute to Jan and John Ashby for their work.

We have also seen collaborative work between Redeeming Our Communities and the police. The organisation, which works in some of the most troubled areas of our country, also sustains a youth project in a fire station. That and the other projects I have mentioned are excellent examples of partnership working between faith groups and local and statutory authorities.

However, such good engagement does not always happen. How, then, can local and, indeed, national Government better engage with and support faith groups to develop their voluntary work and undertake it in as professional a manner as possible, as the great majority wish to? The “Faith in the Community” report clearly states that the first step is for faith groups and local authorities to talk and to develop closer working relationships to break down barriers, whether perceived or real. Such barriers might relate to the language used, concerns about motives, local authorities’ concerns that faith groups’ beliefs will be expressed in a way they consider inappropriate, or faith groups’ concerns that local authorities will not be interested in them and that resources and support will not be available to them just because they are faith groups.

Let me turn now to the “Hidden Treasure in Cheshire East: Faith Action Audit” report, which was produced by the faith community and the local authority in which my constituency lies. I pay tribute to Carolyn McQuaker, who spearheaded the report. The clue to what it is is in the title: an audit of the voluntary and community work of faith groups. The report is interesting because it takes the overview in the “Faith in the Community” report, which the all-party group on Christians in Parliament and the Evangelical Alliance have just produced, and focuses on just one local authority area.

The audit sent out 246 questionnaires to churches and faith communities, of which 154 were returned. Some 150 were from groups that defined themselves as Christian, while one was from a Baha’i group, one was from a Hindu group and two were from Unitarian groups. It is interesting that although there was a connection between those groups and local authority agencies, such as the council for voluntary service, children’s centres and youth services, only 12.5% of the responding faith groups said they had any such active connection with their local authority. Faith groups do valuable work, but how much more could be delivered with just a little more engagement, advice and practical support?

As statistics from the local authority show, the reach of the various faith groups and the impact that they have on tackling challenges in our society are immense, and I hope that hon. Members will bear with me while I quote some of the statistics. Altogether, the 154 faith communities that responded are responsible for running 536 projects—an average of between three and four regular caring projects per group. Incidentally, those projects exclude any that are established and held for the purpose of teaching religion, which were not counted in the report. More than 16,300 people engage in those weekly projects. Some 2,239 toddlers and their carers attend 79 groups each week, while 5,087 children and young people take part in 207 projects run for them across the area. Some 1,700 elderly people join in 81 activities, while 2,365 people take part in 64 projects to develop life skills and to help with physical, mental and material well-being. Nearly 5,000 people take part in other community projects.

In addition to the projects run directly by faith groups, their members also contribute regularly to the life of schools. Some 254 members of faith groups are school governors, and there are an additional 89 school projects. Many church members also give time regularly to the life of local care facilities for the old and the young.

If all that work had to be carried out by statutory services, it would require the equivalent of 281 full-time jobs. If those figures are representative of the faith groups in Cheshire East as a whole, 862 projects are being run for more than 26,000 people every week, at a value of many millions of pounds. Of course, that is probably still vastly understated, because many hours go unrecorded, and the figures do not take into account the voluntary time given to activities such as overseeing groups, supporting and managing volunteers and managing the buildings in which events take place.

The “Hidden Treasure” report contains several constructive, practical suggestions to help faith groups to build on their already remarkable contribution. To build capacity, realise potential and achieve best practice, faith groups themselves should work at communicating with, and representing themselves to, the rest of the voluntary and public sector, such as by engaging more closely with local authorities by sitting on local boards set up by, or in partnership with, local authorities. That could help to make the work of faith groups strategic, and prevent opportunities from being missed to develop or follow through an overall vision for an area or a locality.

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I was struck by what the hon. Lady said about the proportion of faith groups in her area with pre-existing local authority contacts. Does she think that umbrella faith groups, such as Churches Together or equivalent groups in other faiths, might play a useful role in co-ordinating such links?

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I agree. Churches Together provides an excellent way of connecting in many towns. In my constituency, Churches Together in Middlewich has recently launched a good neighbours project, especially to support those who may be lonely at home, in conjunction with the town council and housing association.

It is important for local authorities to encourage church groups to engage with them. As we have heard, the language used by local authorities can be a barrier, and staff need to be aware of that. Councils might consider developing a dedicated faith-based support agency to enable them to understand the challenges faced by faith groups, to form a bridge to the wider voluntary community services and statutory sector, and to provide a resource to enable faith groups to understand what support from local authorities is available to them. It is essential that communication is improved.

As we have heard, the statutory sector is often not aware of the level or range of activity in the faith sector. Equally, the faith sector is unaware of the scope and scale of issues and priorities that the statutory sector must address, or its plans of action. The two should work together on a common vision and direction, pooling resources on several levels—geographically, in localities, and thematically, such as across the youth work of an area—with the aim of facilitating networks and more effective joint action.

True partnerships of trust should respect and honour people’s values and beliefs, and I shall come on to that at the end of my speech with reference to the “Faith in the Community” report. People working with faith groups must connect with them in a way that will enhance, rather than detract from, what they are doing, and protect the ownership of the vision and worth that motivates people of faith. Perhaps the statutory sector needs a little training and guidance to help it to work in partnership with groups that have a faith identity, to help them to maintain that, and perhaps to avoid the heavy bureaucracy that can be so off-putting to the groups.

Local authorities can also help faith groups to improve their research. Faith groups are often very good at measuring activity, but less good at assessing their own impact. Councils could help them to improve that while respecting the fact that it is often church members who have the closest contact at grass-roots level with those in most need in the community. When I was a councillor, a report was done on our youth work—it was not good. One of the problems was that the youth workers worked 9 to 5, and it was the church youth leaders out on the streets, doing the detached work night after night, who understood what young people were coping with and were the most effective. More such joint working and interaction is needed.

A further recommendation of the “Hidden Treasure” report concerns training. Local authorities have huge resources and expertise with which to provide quality training, which could radically help to build capacity among faith groups. I am pleased to note that Cheshire East council has strengthened its offer of training to faith groups because of the report, and that should enable more faith groups to sustain projects. Often they have the passion and vision to start a project, but sustaining one perhaps takes a little more training, support and expertise than many faith groups have.

In addition, often relatively small amounts of money, compared with a local authority budget, can have a significant impact on faith groups’ ability to expand their capacity. However, many do not want to engage in the commissioning process, which they find burdensome, and nor do they have the capacity to do so. A little more financial support would be appreciated, and it would also be helpful if there was an annual audit and review of the kind of work that faith groups do in every local area so that we may celebrate and highlight the sector’s achievements and ensure that local authorities can fully engage with their plans and actions.

I said that I would touch on the “Faith in the Community” report, and I want to clarify two points. It is important that guidance should be issued

“that expresses a clear understanding that it is legitimate for beliefs to be manifested”

as faith communities go about their work within local communities

“without implying proselytisation.”

It is important not to confuse the two. Finally, local authorities should provide reasonable accommodation of religion and belief whenever possible. The report states:

“An approach should be adopted that allows faith groups to be open about their beliefs and values, and the practices these encourage, rather than emphasise a privatisation of belief”,

and suggests that practical provision should be made

“for substantive freedom of religious expression”

and belief. After all, that is the very thing that motivates people of faith to undertake the remarkable work that they do.

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rose—

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Order. Each Front-Bench spokesman will have 10 minutes, so I shall call Chris Williamson no later than 3.40 pm.

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The trouble with a debate such as this is that it can be as reassuring and pleasant as a Christmas carol service. We all agree with each other. We are about to hear the winding-up speeches, and I have no doubt that both Front-Bench spokesmen will be extremely polite about faith groups and pay tribute to all their sterling work. We will all go away feeling very happy. However, a more serious situation exists, which needs to be addressed.

I followed what my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) said. I do not blame the current Front Bench, but undoubtedly faith, and particularly action in faith, and faith groups, have suffered during the past century, because the state has become a kind of giant mustard tree—if we are to use biblical references—and all other activity has gradually been drained of irrigation. Faith groups, like other voluntary groups, have suffered from the attitude of mind that it is the state that must always take responsibility. We can have a wide-ranging debate about that, and we all know the arguments on both sides.

However, there is something much more serious going on, and I want to amplify the two points I made earlier. I made an intervention about the Plymouth Brethren. I think that that is an interesting case, because it is almost a throwback to the politics of the 16th and 17th centuries. There is a religious group whose beliefs, frankly, the state thinks are weird. Most Members of Parliament either have no faith at all or belong to well established faith groups with broad views. We find it difficult to understand the viewpoint of a group such as the Plymouth Brethren, who, frankly, treat life in literal accordance with the Bible.

As a result, they want to have closed services to an extent, which is their right; they also want to mix and work together and to educate their children in their own schools. That sits oddly with the modern ethos of audit—that everything has to subscribe to general notions of the right way to do things—but we should consider the attack on the Plymouth Brethren by the Charity Commission as an attack on freedom of belief and association, and it is therefore very important. It is important not only for that admittedly small group of people, but for those of us who belong to Churches that are far more numerous, because we are also under attack from the same attitudes.

I mentioned the Catholic adoption agencies earlier, in an intervention on the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms). I noticed that he did not answer my question—perhaps he did not want to, or the answer was too difficult. The situation, however, is serious: a mainstream Church was indulging in extraordinarily important work with by far the most difficult families in the country, trying to place children from very disturbed backgrounds with foster parents, but all those adoption agencies have now closed. An important faith group was doing important work that we all lauded and thought was marvellous, but the agencies have closed because the state said that the adoption groups had an ethos that did not fit with its equality ethos. That is extremely worrying.

We have heard a lot about covenants, and we will no doubt hear more. Furthermore, in the wind-ups, we will hear a lot about the good work of faith groups and about how we want to encourage local authorities to work with faith groups. If we look at what is happening on the ground, however, we see that serious things are occurring. We have had a big debate about same-sex marriage, and I do not want to repeat all the arguments, but the Government have been loud in their acclamation that they want to protect the position of Churches. I believe that the marriage services carried out by Churches in their own buildings will be protected, for a time anyway, but will freedom of speech in Church schools be protected? Will freedom of action in Church groups be protected? Those are much more difficult questions to answer.

Frankly, I am not so interested in covenants and all the rest; I am interested in the state leaving faith groups alone. Leave them alone! Let them run their voluntary organisations, schools, Churches and adoption agencies in the way that they want to run them. Often, the way that the faith groups want to run such organisations will be counter to modern, secular ideas of equality. The trouble with faith, however, is that it is often demanding. The books of faith in any religion make difficult demands of people. Sometimes, admittedly, they are exclusive in their demands; they proclaim a particular truth, and it is difficult for all people to subscribe to those truths. Some people may be excluded because of their set of beliefs, but that is the nature of faith. We have to recognise that they have those strong beliefs, whether on same-sex marriage or anything else, and they are entitled to run their own groups how they want to. In spite of all the warm words that we will shortly hear from the Minister and the shadow Minister, that is not happening, and there is now a war of attrition.

Some people say that the faith groups are whinging and whining and that they live in an entirely tolerant and free country—thank God that we do live in a country that still is largely free and tolerant, compared with many others in the world—but I do not believe that our country is as free for and as tolerant of the faith groups’ views, which are often difficult, as it was 10, 20 or 30 years ago. No one sitting in the Chamber now can gainsay that point of view. No one can deny that the faith groups, although still largely free to carry on their own services in their own churches, mosques, temples or whatever, are not as free as they were, although they are much freer than in many other parts of the world.

The faith groups reach out to the community with their voluntary organisations. The Charity Commission said to the Plymouth Brethren, “The reason why we want to take your charity status away is that you are not reaching out to the community.” The Brethren know, however, that when they reach out to the community, their beliefs immediately run counter to the demands made on their organisations by the local authorities. Paradoxically, that is why the Plymouth Brethren want to retreat into themselves: they feel under threat from the wider world—their ethos is under threat. Therefore, they want to protect their young people, but, having come to the conclusion that the only way in which they can do so is to educate themselves, they find that the Charity Commission says, “That is not good enough. You are not reaching out to the wider world.” They are in an impossible situation.

I ask only one thing of the Minister. Please, ponder the debate and leave faith groups, their organisations and their ethos alone.

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It is a pleasure to be serving under your chairmanship, Mr Walker, I think for the first time.

I congratulate the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) on securing the debate, which is important and has been a good and interesting one. I share her exhortation to local government to work with faith groups, which do such a wonderful job in our communities.

I shall touch on some of the comments made by hon. Members. The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) referred to the need to build the capacity of faith groups. That is an important goal to enable faith groups in the community to provide the support facilities that they might wish to see and from which the community might benefit. She also cited a number of good examples of the excellent work that faith groups are doing in her constituency and in the wider area. We can probably all cite such examples of faith groups doing excellent work. She also referred to the partnership activities in her constituency, such as the work of the fire and rescue service with a faith group. The fire and rescue service is doing a wonderful job throughout the country, so it is good to see a collaboration taking place as she outlined. The hon. Lady mentioned a low level of engagement in some parts of the country, which we need to be mindful of and to tackle. It is helpful to raise the issue in today’s debate as one that needs to be looked at.

My right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) has considerable experience in this area, and he does some excellent work. I am sure hon. Members know of his contribution to the whole agenda. He identified the fact that faith groups not only of Christian denominations, but right across the piece—faith groups of all persuasions—do some excellent work in the community. He also highlighted some of the obstacles to collaboration, which we need to tackle.

The hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) said that the state cannot be responsible for delivering everything. I agree, but the state has a role, and the debate is all about how the state can work alongside faith groups. Nevertheless, I take issue with him on his point that the state cannot be responsible for compassion: the national health service is the very embodiment of the state showing compassion to its citizens. Similarly, the establishment of the welfare state is an example of the state showing compassion to its citizens.

While it is true that the welfare budget has grown, and the hon. Gentleman made the point that it cannot continue to grow exponentially, we should not expect faith groups and the wider voluntary sector to pick up the pieces, if the cap is set at such a level. In such circumstances, the state should not put the onus on faith groups, but ensure that any cap is imposed compassionately. That means ensuring that employers do not exploit their work force but pay appropriate wages, so that people are not reliant on the state. It also means ensuring that landlords do not profiteer and charge excessive rents, leading to a ballooning housing benefit bill, and that unemployed people are guaranteed employment. By doing those things, we can ensure that no unreasonable burden is placed on voluntary organisations. I hope that the hon. Gentleman was not suggesting that having a cap means that it would fall to faith organisations to fulfil the role that the state, rightly, should be fulfilling.

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I think the hon. Gentleman might be slightly missing the point of this debate, which is about how to support and empower faith groups to do more in the community. It is not some kind of political talk about austerity and how it might affect the state’s need to depend on faith groups. He might be looking at the issue from the other end of the telescope.

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I was merely responding to the comments made by the hon. Member for Banbury, who mentioned the cap and the argument that welfare spending cannot continue to grow exponentially. I was merely pointing out, as the hon. Lady did, that the debate is about how we can facilitate and enable faith groups to fulfil their full potential and work in collaboration. However, such groups should not be a substitution for the role of the state. I think the issue is about a partnership and a collaborative approach—or at least I hope it is. I was responding to the hon. Gentleman’s comments, in case there was any misunderstanding about what he was saying, and I simply wanted to put our views on the record.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) referred to the impact of equalities legislation on the role of some faith groups. He raised the example of adoption agencies that no longer provide a service because of the imposition of equalities legislation. It is important that all organisations and all of us are subject to the law. I do not think that it is appropriate to say that one particular interest group should be exempt from the law of the land. Equalities legislation is the law of the land, and all organisations, whether they are faith groups or otherwise, need to be subject to it.

The hon. Gentleman also said that the state should leave faith groups alone and let them get on with what they do. That also potentially misses the point of the debate, which, as we have already touched on, is about how local government can work more closely with faith groups, so it is a question not of leaving them alone but of how they can work more effectively together.

Faith groups are integral to the fabric of many communities, and they do some excellent work. We have heard some examples of that, such as youth work, working alongside and providing support to homeless people, food banks and street pastors. That is excellent work. I know that many local authorities value the input from faith groups.

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I may have expressed myself badly, and I apologise. The hon. Gentleman has obviously misunderstood what I said. I was trying to say that if faith groups are put in a position where they feel that they must be supported by local authorities and conform to the authorities’ ethos—he who pays the piper calls the tune—there is a real danger that they gradually become impoverished in their belief. It will be a kind of vicious circle: as they can survive only because of the money that is provided, they will have to subscribe to secular beliefs and culture. They will lose their very vitality, which is formed by faith. That was the point I was trying to make, perhaps badly.

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I am grateful for that clarification. That is a pessimistic view, to be honest. In my experience, local authorities work well with faith groups and try to facilitate their activities. A shared approach is a partnership approach, and sometimes there will be tension. Part of the reason for having this debate is, I hope, to discuss that and look at ways in which some of those obstacles may be overcome.

Some of the difficulties relate to a lack of understanding, and to expectations. Indeed, sometimes there is a lack of awareness or understanding between faith groups. It is important that local authorities try to come up with ways of ensuring that such misunderstanding is overcome. There are some good examples of that happening around the country. In my own constituency, the forum of faith groups, which was established by the local authority, works extremely well. It brings all the faith organisations in the city together and facilitates working between different faith groups and alongside the local authority and other statutory agencies.

The work that faith groups do around the country—certainly where they work closely with the local authority—helps to facilitate community cohesion in their areas, particularly where we have umbrella organisations that bring together the different faith groups and provide an opportunity for discussion. I think that that is valued, and I hope that we will see more of that approach around the country.

To conclude, the key is that the work of faith groups should complement, not replace, the role of local government and public service agencies and the services that they provide.

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I feel that the thrust of this debate among contributors and those who have made interventions is to underline the good work that faith groups do, particularly where the Government have not been or are not working. Surely the thrust should not be that the Government should restrict faith groups, but work alongside them.

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I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman. Certainly the Government should work alongside faith groups, and there are plenty of examples of that. There are some examples of their not working so well together, and I hope that we can overcome that. Rather than faith groups doing their own thing and public service agencies doing theirs, much more can be achieved by working together. Where there can be collaboration, faith groups can add value to the public services that are provided by local and national Government.

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The hon. Gentleman is saying that the work of faith groups should complement, not replace, that of local authorities, but what about, for example, the hospice movement, which is largely voluntary? That is not complementary to, but instead of, local authorities. Does he not see that on many occasions faith groups provide services instead of local authorities, not alongside them?

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That is a good example, but it does not undermine the general thrust of my point. I am not saying that faith groups should provide services that are already being provided; they are just adding to them. The hospice movement, which the hon. Lady identified, is a good example of an addition that may be provided.

We are probably on the same page; I do not necessarily think there is any difference between us on that point. It is important not only to understand the significant role of faith groups, but to try to facilitate a better understanding between local government, other public service organisations, and faith groups. Facilitating that joint approach would enable the services that are provided by both the public sector and the faith group sector to be much enhanced—

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Order. The hon. Gentleman has had 14 minutes. I call Mr Mark Prisk.

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Thank you, Mr Walker. In the time available, let me start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) on securing the debate and on her thoughtful, balanced contribution, which covered an interesting range of issues. I think that that has been the case for the debate as a whole.

In a sense, underlying my hon. Friend’s powerful argument was her question of plurality, although I do not pretend to have an immediate answer to that. I totally understand the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) about the danger of a society and Government mindset that becomes ever narrower, perhaps for the best of intentions, but nevertheless does not take account of the fact that there are different perspectives that we need to respect in society as a whole.

I strongly feel that faith communities play a very important role at the local and national level. It is about helping many people to strengthen their moral outlook, and about the way in which such groups help people and provide a service to others, by being good neighbours. It is also about the way in which we help those in genuine need. As several people have said, it is true that Governments of whatever political persuasion have tended to ignore or misunderstand the role of our faith groups, and today’s debate gives us an opportunity. I am a Minister in a Department with a Secretary of State who takes this issue seriously, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) mentioned, and we not only welcome the report, but applaud its contents and the work that it records. As we have heard, Governments have perhaps been cautious in the past about engaging with such things. They have perhaps been wary of being seen to take too strong a role in the direction of certain faiths in a society in which, as has been rightly described, aggressive secularism has a strong and powerful voice. As a Government, we welcome the report and the work of faith groups.

The debate and the report have informed us of the huge range of activities in which such groups are involved. Hon. Members have mentioned food banks, fostering services, the work of CAP debt agencies and street pastors. I have been out with the street pastor group in my constituency. Among the flip-flops and the lollipops, they play an important pastoral role. In my case, that was in Bishop’s Stortford, but the project that my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire visited sounds even more exciting. The fact that senior police officers take it seriously and recognise the role of people in the community who give their time to help others is an interesting sign of what can be achieved.

Before I come to the specific questions that have been asked, I will touch on faith groups’ role in homes and homelessness. I have seen marvellous work undertaken, whether that is through the Passage, the Salvation Army, or St George’s Crypt in Leeds. People are making a difference, not only by providing shelter to those who are homeless, but by helping them to change their lives and get back to being able to stand on their own two feet, and that is very much led by faith.

Several hon. Members mentioned the role of Churches Together, and churches and faith groups around them can help new communities as well. In Devon—in Cranbrook, near Exeter—alongside the work that we are doing as a Government with bricks and mortar to establish a lasting community, I was delighted to see the role of the Churches Together, which has ensured that, from the start, there is a minister—not a Government Minister—for Cranbrook, Mark Gilborson, who is helping to bind the community together. Whatever I may do as Minister for Housing, communities will not be defined by bricks and mortar; they will be defined by people and how the community binds together.

Let me turn to hon. Members’ specific points. It is right to say that there has been a perception in national and local government—sometimes falsely, on the basis of misconceptions or fear, but perhaps also due to a lack of understanding—about what faith groups can be, and of what they do and add. To counter some of the more cautious discussion in the debate, the survey by the Evangelical Alliance, which underpins the report, suggests that things have moved on and that many councils are now positively engaging. There are problems, however. We as a Department are actively involved in ensuring that some problems relating to what is termed overstretch, and to the bureaucracy that can often be overwhelming for small, faith-based groups, can be overcome. It is also important to tackle the problem that even if councils have recognised that faith-based groups are strong, and they are willing to commission services from those groups, we have seen a minority of cases in which they have made it clear to such groups that they need to be quiet about their faith.

The Government do not regard it as reasonable for local authorities to impose such conditions in contracts, even though they may legally be at liberty to do so. We are, of course, not talking about public money paying for specific religious worship—indeed, we all want to ensure that services are open and for a common cause when public money is involved. However, let us face it: the vast majority of church and faith groups are perfectly capable of sticking to those rules. The key point is that people need to be able to be honest about their faith, without necessarily needing to impose it on somebody else. That is the balance that I would encourage councils to consider.

I am not complacent about the challenge, but more can be done to establish a more productive working relationship with some councils, so I want to offer two or three practical points in response to what hon. Members raised. The Evangelical Alliance is planning a series of road shows to bring together church leaders and senior local government officials to work through the report’s findings jointly. The point made by the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) about a covenant might well fit into that dialogue. I am pleased to say that my departmental officials are actively involved in that process, and I strongly encourage councils to take part. In fact, I go further and encourage hon. Members in the Chamber to encourage their councils to ensure that they participate.

There is an issue about the term “religious literacy”. There are ways to improve things, whether that is by starting with those groups who are more actively engaged in the community, or by having, as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) suggested, a dedicated officer or councillor who can take the lead, change the culture, open minds, and understand that there is a different perspective, because such a process can start to break down some of the misunderstanding. It is also important that we play a role, which is why we will set up our own seminars that will be deliberately designed to start to look at where there are such gaps and problems, and at what can be done to change that.

Let me turn briefly to the question of the Plymouth Brethren. As hon. Members will know, I need to be cautious, in that the Charity Commission is independent of Ministers and it is not for me to interfere in any individual decision. We should not rush to any judgment about changing the definition of charity. An appeal has been lodged, and I think it will be held in September. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire and others pointed out, the Brethren do good work, as do so many other faith groups. I want the case to reach a speedy resolution and for both sides to resolve the matter. This needs to be done with open minds, not closed minds.

Several other excellent points have been raised. Inter-faith is an absolutely crucial issue, and the Near Neighbours programme and the £5 million we are investing is important. However, let me conclude by saying that this has been a timely debate. It is right to say that, in the past, some of our faith groups have felt either ignored or misunderstood by both central and local government, and that is why I welcome the report. I know that my noble Friend Baroness Warsi, who leads on the issue in the Department, will want to take matters further, particularly with regard to how we increase co-operation between councils. Perhaps rather than using my words, however, I may conclude with those of Dr Sentamu, the Archbishop of York:

“Building strong working relationships between local authorities and religious communities should not be based on mere ‘tolerance’. It should be about talking, listening, and growing together. Together, working in unity of spirit, we are stronger than when we try to do things in isolation.”