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Inter Faith Network for the UK

Volume 743: debated on Wednesday 10 January 2024

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Mohindra.)

I sought to secure this debate to be an advocate for the great work of the Inter Faith Network, which feels more important and more necessary than ever before, but also to be clear with the Government that the network faces imminent closure if they do not deliver on their July 2023 commitment to continue to provide funding.

Here in the UK, we are a religiously diverse country. The Inter Faith Network was founded in 1987 as a way to advance public knowledge and mutual understanding of the teachings, traditions and practices of the different faith communities in Britain, including an awareness of both their distinctive features and their common ground, and to promote good relations between people of different faiths in this country. I do not think anyone could find fault with that.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. I am a big fan of Hounslow Friends of Faith because of the work it has done to bring communities together—particularly at times of heightened community tensions that affect our communities—but also its other activities, such as a public health video on suicide prevention. Does my hon. Friend agree that the success of our local Friends of Faith or equivalent organisations is only possible because there is a robust national organisation that supports them in their work?

I am really grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. She is absolutely right, and I join her in paying tribute to Hounslow Friends of Faith. She has shared a really powerful example of where faith communities can work together to deliver truly beneficial projects and initiatives that go deep into communities, perhaps in ways that other statutory agencies cannot.

I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to follow the intervention made by my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury). In the letter I wrote to the Secretary of State on the funding issue in May last year, I made the point that for almost four decades the Inter Faith Network for the UK has been dedicated to increasing understanding and co-operation between peoples of different faiths.

Does my hon. Friend agree with Charanjit Singh, chair of Hounslow Friends of Faith—making such a contribution at times of tension when dialogue is most needed, as has been outlined—that we need the Inter Faith Network to be supported, so that the national body can make sure that local organisations can do their vital grassroots work?

I am once again grateful to my hon. Friend. She has made a really powerful case for the support that the national network provides to those local community groups, which then facilitate and host the dialogue that is not always easy, but is absolutely vital. We are all so grateful for the role and the benefit it then has within our communities, and how it brings people together at times when we most need that really important work to be undertaken. She is absolutely right.

The IFN’s member bodies include national faith community representative bodies from the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh faiths, such as the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Hindu Council UK, the Muslim Council of Britain and the Methodist Council, to name just a handful.

In my own beautiful city of Manchester, incredible activities and inter-faith work goes on. Two weeks ago, an article in The Telegraph insinuated that the Secretary of State for Levelling Up is concerned that the Muslim Council of Britain is a member of the Inter Faith Network. The Muslim Council of Britain upholds British values, and champions mutual respect and tolerance by coming together through inter-faith initiatives. It has long been a trusted group consulted by many Members of this House, although the Conservative Government have consistently rejected Muslim civil society groups. Does my hon. Friend agree that these attacks on the Inter Faith Network and the Muslim Council of Britain are disappointing, and take away from the important work that they do?

Again, I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He has provided another powerful example of how that inter-faith work is so important in his part of the world, Greater Manchester—we are already hearing examples from right across the country. I know that the Inter Faith Network is incredibly proud to host the Muslim Council of Britain among its members. I know that my hon. Friend does a great deal of work with the Muslim Council of Britain; long may that continue, because it is an incredibly important partner in that dialogue and those conversations, and again, can carry some of those messages deep into communities in a way that some other organisations cannot. My hon. Friend has made an incredibly powerful point.

As well as those I have mentioned, small but significant faith communities are also represented, including the Quakers, Baha’i, Spiritualists and Pagans. The IFN’s members also include national and regional inter-faith organisations, local inter-faith bodies, and educational and academic bodies with an interest in multi-faith and inter-faith issues, such as the University of Salford Faith Centre and the Cambridge Interfaith Programme.

First, I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this forward. I spoke to her beforehand; she has brought forward a subject that is close to her heart, close to mine and, I believe, close to the hearts of everyone in the Chamber.

As the hon. Lady will know, I chair the all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief. We speak up for those with Christian faith, those with other faiths and those with no faith, because we encapsulate or try to encapsulate the very point that the hon. Lady is putting forward. I am greatly supportive of this issue.

Does the hon. Lady believe that the appointment of the special envoy for freedom of religion or belief was a step in the right direction that has achieved a great deal? Does she further agree that more can and should be done to show support for all faiths—all of them—throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and to recognise the sterling work carried out by the faith-based groups that the hon. Lady has referred to across the UK?

I am really grateful to the hon. Member; it would not be an Adjournment debate without a thoughtful and powerful contribution from him. He does a great deal of work in this area and is an enormous advocate for so many of the faith groups that he brings together and is a champion for in this place, so I pay tribute to him. He made a very good point in his intervention, and I thank him for that.

I thank the hon. Lady for initiating this debate. In Harrow, we certainly have a very strong inter-faith community that brings together and organises everyone from every religion in a very positive way, which is extremely helpful, particularly at times of trouble. However, there have been criticisms of the Inter Faith Network—not necessarily about its aims, but about the way it has been run. I have had supportive comments from some elements in Harrow to say what a wonderful job it is doing, but I have also heard criticism of the way it is being run. Has she has had a chance to examine those criticisms and see whether there is any foundation to them whatsoever?

I welcome the intervention. As part of preparations for this debate, I have certainly looked into any concerns about and any criticisms made of the Inter Faith Network. I do not think it comes as a surprise that there are those who are uncomfortable about inter-faith work; that is actually where such a partnership approach very much needs allies in this place.

I have looked carefully at the way the network is organised and run, and it appears to me to be incredibly diligent. I have touched on its broad membership, to which the hon. Gentleman also alluded. It is in demonstrating the critical mass of those different organisations being brought together that says to me that nobody is doing this work as successfully as the network is. It is as effective as it is because so many people trust the work it is doing and have bought into its aims and the way it conducts its business. I have been able to thoroughly satisfy myself as part of this process that it is doing very good work, is run very diligent way and is effective at what it does. I hope that, in the rest of my speech, I can satisfy any further points to that effect.

What has restored my faith and confidence in the network is how it has responded to some of the criticisms in a very open way and by inviting people into explain their views, rather than getting drawn into what could be sectarian rows or internecine strife on religious and other grounds. How it has reacted has in many ways demonstrated the strength of the organisation.

Again, I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for that point. Some of the IFN’s publications, such as the letter from the co-chairs to the editor of The Telegraph only this week, have been very candid and transparent. It has been incredibly accountable in the work it does and the way it goes about it, so I entirely agree with him on that point.

Is it not clear that the kind of dialogue across faith divides that the Inter Faith Network facilitates is more needed at this moment than ever? Unless the Government keep their promise to provide funding for this financial year, we are going to lose that capacity entirely. Would that not be a terrible tragedy?

My right hon. Friend is exactly right, and I thank him for making that point. We need the work that the IFN does now more than ever. If we lose that—those friendships, the trust born out of that facilitated membership and the programmes, initiatives and dialogue built up over years and years—it will take an awfully long time to rebuild it. Even should funding perhaps become available in the future, it would be gone. It would take a lot time and effort to put it back together, and that would be an absolute travesty. As I say, we need that work now more than ever.

I will make some progress. All the IFN’s members are clearly listed on its website. Those I have mentioned give just a hint of the range and number of members who proudly belong. Examples of its work include leading a programme of events to celebrate national Inter Faith Week every November. Last year’s events, which included a parliamentary drop-in, engaged more people than ever before. The network publishes practical guidance, such as the “Looking after one another: the safety and security of our faith communities” guide, in partnership with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the Home Office, the Crown Prosecution Service, the National Police Chiefs’ Council, the National Fire Chiefs Council and the Equality and Human Rights Commission. It has supported the development and strengthening of local inter-faith engagement through publications such as “Deep connections: Women’s local inter faith initiatives in the UK”, which was published in March last year. It brings together national faith community bodies to discuss topics such as faith and organ donation, social care and hate crime and to share good practice on working with other faith communities.

The IFN monitors and evaluates its work carefully to ensure that it is continuing to be effective in enabling an ever-growing number of people in the UK to take part and benefit from stronger inter-faith relations, to tackle ignorance, prejudice and hatred linked to religious identity, to grow their religious literacy, to develop bonds of trust and friendship and to co-operate on social action projects for the benefit of wider society.

While so many MPs will speak with great pride about representing diverse communities, as the former chair of all-party parliamentary group on social integration I recognise that we also need to provide opportunities for people to engage, interact and learn about each other. Only when we nurture the relationships and friendships between different people do we establish trust and break down barriers.

The international backdrop to this inter-faith work in the UK means, as we have discussed, that it could not be more important. The horror of Hamas’s attack on Israel on 7 October, followed by the utter devastation of Israel’s response upon the people of Gaza, have inevitably impacted on communities here in the UK. Tell MAMA recorded 1,432 anti-Muslim cases between 7 October and 13 December—a sevenfold increase in reported incidents. The Community Safety Trust reports that it has seen an increase in anti-Jewish hate acts of 534% in the same period, compared with the same period last year.

We know that we have to do more to promote and nurture trust, understanding and respect between different communities, and this feels like a time when we should be supporting, not undermining, inter-faith work. Alongside that, I am aware that the Government last published their four-year hate crime action plan in 2016. It was updated in 2018, but it has not been updated since, nor has a new plan been published. Given these stark increases in unacceptable hate crimes, I would be grateful if the Minister clarified when we can expect some progress on that front.

From 2001 onwards, the IFN has sought and received grant funding from Government that pays for its very small team of four people and to facilitate those incredibly important meetings. Since then, funding from Government under successive Administrations towards IFN’s work programme has been a vital component of funding, alongside other forms of support, such as donations from individuals, trusts, faith communities, other bodies and membership fees.

It was a real setback when, on 31 March last year, IFN received a letter from an official at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities saying that further funding would not be given from April 2023 onwards. I, like many MPs here for this debate, tabled written parliamentary questions, wrote to Ministers and asked questions in the Chamber to query the logic of that and raise concerns about how it had been handled. However, on 7 July 2023, IFN received a letter from DLUHC saying that following a review by Ministers of funded programmes across the communities and integration portfolio, funding was now being offered to IFN. The funding was offered in the form of access to 2022-23 underspend plus some new funding. The letter explained that the money would be for use from July 2023 to March 2024. It would be subject to grant funding agreements and other conditions.

Despite the best efforts of IFN and its allies, including many of us here in Parliament, as things currently stand, the July 2023 to March 2024 grant funding agreement has not been provided and therefore that funding cannot be accessed. I am reliably informed that when the present offer of funding was made last July, the letter said that funding would not be provided beyond March 2024. So while the IFN continues to try to find alternative solutions, the truth is that its small team of staff have been given notice of redundancy. The Inter Faith Network is about to close—it is on life support—without clarity from the Government about whether financial support will be forthcoming.

As we have touched on, the Inter Faith Network has critics. I think that is inevitable—there will always be some who feel threatened by inter-faith work—but I hope that the Government would be proud to support it. In addressing some of the criticisms made, it is worth stressing that the co-chairs of the network have made clear that the IFN has a long-standing policy on the making of statements, which precludes making direct comment on overseas events; instead, members work together on responding to the impact of any such events on communities here in the UK.

It is worth saying that anyone seeking to criticise the Inter Faith Network for failing to single-handedly deliver world peace would be painfully misguided. The work that it does, and the dialogue it facilitates, is only a good thing. I hope that the Minister will agree, at least in principle, that we need more of it, not less.

I look forward to what the Minister has to say. Before I close, I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the co-chairs of the Inter Faith Network, Mr Narendra Waghela and Rev. Canon Hilary Barber, as well as the executive director Harriet Crabtree. Hilary Barber is the reverend of Halifax minster in my constituency and has been instrumental in establishing Calderdale’s inter-faith council as well as now holding this special national role. I pay tribute to him and all those who work so hard in our communities on inter-faith initiatives to benefit all our communities.

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing forward this important debate and draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I am proud to be a trustee of Interfaith Glasgow, which runs a weekend club for refugees in the city. Interfaith Glasgow builds connections between different groups and reduces social isolation. In the long run, it saves the Government money by trying to provide preventive support to people who need it, as well as bringing people together from their various communities. To pick up what my hon. Friend said earlier in her speech, does she agree that such initiatives really bring our communities together and that now, when our communities perhaps seem more divided than at any time recently—although I am not sure that they are as much as it would seem—and the news is often full of negative stories of division between communities, they should be supported in any possible way?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for sharing that example from Glasgow, which demonstrates inter-faith work at its best, getting out and delivering initiatives and programmes that are so effective at bringing people together when it feels like we are living in quite a divided world. I thank him for his work as part of Interfaith Glasgow and all those he works with who make that programme possible.

I hope that the Minister has heard from across the Chamber and across the country the value of that work in our communities, with the support of the national Inter Faith Network in bringing people together—we absolutely need that to be done—to deliver important dialogue. It is not always easy, but it is effective; it does work. We will all feel the benefit of those conversations. I hope he has some positive news for us in his response.

First, and in all sincerity, I thank the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) both for the way in which she approached the debate and for the strong, powerful advocacy she presented to the House of the work, the value and the merit of the network. She set out the case very clearly indeed. I am delighted to respond to the debate. The policy Minister for this issue is my noble Friend Baroness Scott of Bybrook. I am the faith Minister in the Department, which is why it falls to me to respond to this Adjournment debate.

I have been struck by the heartfelt and very sincere comments from colleagues from both the main parties against a backdrop of increasing tension, the root cause of which is often religious and historical differences. Vital work is done across our communities and societies by so many groups and organisations, including the Inter Faith Network, to build bridges, develop understanding and host and facilitate conversations. If ever there were a case for jaw-jaw being more important than war-war, it is that. I commend all those from all faith groups across the United Kingdom who partake in that important work.

The Government are fully persuaded of the importance of developing and maintaining strong relationships across faiths and beliefs. That is crucial to the fabric of our nation. We know full well that faith communities play a key role in society, and not just within their own community, as very often those people involved are motivated to get involved with a whole mesh of community networks and other voluntary organisations. They meet colleagues, develop friendships and get each other involved. That is a vital part of people’s identity. We fully support the invaluable work done by people around the country who are inspired and motivated by their faith to do good for others.

The Minister is speaking eloquently. I would like to mention the Woking People of Faith. Woking has some extremely strong faith communities, which also work together. That has been great over the years for community cohesion, and never has it been more important than at the moment when our borough faces financial challenges. Our churches and mosques are stepping up to work even harder to help the vulnerable. I agree very much with what he is saying, and I think it would be helpful to have more support at a national level for these fantastic local initiatives.

I will be speaking to the leader of my hon. Friend’s council tomorrow on the wider matter of local government finance, but we are not here to discuss that this evening. He makes an incredibly valid and important point, which I was seeking to make, too: those who are involved in faith groups reach out to do other things in our communities and societies, bringing people together. At a time when people often feel terribly isolated, when the only community they think exists is on the screen that they hold on their hands, those interactions of conversation and common humanity are phenomenally important.

I make absolutely no apology for declaring myself a proud multiculturalist, believing entirely that our country is stronger, richer and more powerful—and I do not mean financially richer or muscularly more powerful—and a better place as a result of our faith and other communities in our country doing all that they do. We are incredibly supportive of those efforts to bring people together.

His Majesty the King has often reflected on the significance of better understanding of faiths, and has spoken of the importance of remaining united in partnership and friendship. We know full well that he recently held an event at the palace to speak with young people. It is crucial that young people see faith not as an abstract thing or something for older people, but as something that unites the generations. Inter-faith activity is important, too, and learning and understanding more about different faiths can help bring about positive change in our society. As we live in an increasingly diverse society—for which I make no apology, and I doubt anyone in the House does—improving inter-faith relations is even more important.

The conflict between Israel and Hamas and its impact on community tensions in the UK has brought into sharp focus a number of issues. We must continue to encourage—if at any time, certainly now—a greater understanding of different faiths and beliefs to help foster better relationships and eliminate all forms of intolerance or hatred.

I am conscious that time is running out. Are the Government going to honour the promise they made to the IFN in their letter of July last year?

I will come on to that in a moment if the right hon. Gentleman will just bear with me. The Department is—as per its letter of 7 July 2023, which was sent to Harriet Crabtree OBE—undertaking a variety of analyses with regard to the network. I hope my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be making an announcement in the not too distant future, but I am afraid I am not able to confirm that this evening.

I stress again that the staff have been made redundant and are working their notice. It will be such a devastating tragedy if the money comes too late and, because of Government inaction, it is forced to close. I just want to stress that point to the Minister one more time.

Let me assure the hon. Lady that I hear precisely what she has said. I will communicate that through to ministerial colleagues and to officials in the Department who are dealing with this matter. She makes the point powerfully and I hear what she says. Any organisation that secures funding from the public sector, be it in central or local government, always values certainty and security. I am seized of that and of the time pressures to which she alludes.

Could the Minister confirm whether the Department has also been in touch with the IFN to say that there is going to be a forthcoming announcement?

The letter of 7 July set out to Dr Crabtree the funding criteria. That letter has not been either rescinded or updated, so it stands as the de facto communication, if you will, between the Department and the network. Officials and Ministers will be working on that, as I say, and the Department hopes to be able to make an announcement in pretty short order.

I do not think I can give way, because I think I have about 57 seconds left before the end of the debate.

I have neither chequebook nor pen to hand.

Let me say, in closing, that the work of the network is understood and the importance of that work is very clear. The network is not the only body that provides forums and organisations to deliver inter-community and inter-faith discussions. There are others, but we hope to be able to make an announcement in due course.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.