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Inter Faith Network Closure

Volume 745: debated on Thursday 22 February 2024

(Urgent Question): Will the Minister make a statement about the closure that has been announced today of the Inter Faith Network?

May I thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of the Inter Faith Network? I am grateful for all his work as chair of the all-party group on faith and society and as a long-standing advocate for dialogue across faiths.

As the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) said during an Adjournment debate in January, we know full well the role that faith communities play in our society. We are extremely supportive of efforts by faith groups and others to bring together people of different faiths and beliefs.

The Secretary of State wrote to the co-chairs of the Inter Faith Network on 19 January this year to inform them that he was minded to withdraw the offer of funding for the 2023-24 financial year. This was because of the appointment of a member of the Muslim Council of Britain to the board of trustees of the IFN. As the House will be aware, successive Governments have had a long-standing policy of non-engagement with the MCB. The appointment of an MCB member to the core governance structure of a Government-funded organisation therefore poses a reputational risk to the Government.

The Secretary of State invited the IFN to make representations on this matter, which it subsequently did. He carefully considered the points raised by the IFN before concluding that its points were outweighed by the need to maintain the Government’s policy of non- engagement with the MCB, and the risk of compromising the credibility and effectiveness of that policy. Inter-faith work is valuable, but that does not require us to use taxpayers’ money in a way that legitimises the influence of organisations such as the MCB.

The Department regularly reminds our partners, including the IFN, of the importance of developing sustainable funding arrangements rather than relying on taxpayers’ money, which can never be guaranteed. The potential closure of the organisation is therefore a matter for the IFN, as an independent charity, and not the Government. The Government continue to be fully supportive of developing and maintaining strong relationships across faiths and beliefs.

Since 1987, the Inter Faith Network has been the UK’s principal vehicle for inter-faith dialogue, supporting the annual Inter Faith Week, and activities and dialogue undertaken by inter-faith groups across the whole country. The network has been supported by Government funding for some 20 years. The IFN was told on 31 March last year, before the trustee appointment that the Minister referred to, that its funding would be ended from the following day. Why has the organisation been treated in that extraordinary way? Last July, the network received a letter from the Secretary of State to inform it that it would, after all, receive funding for the current financial year. That promise has never been honoured. Why not?

Given the debate in this Chamber yesterday, is it not extraordinarily stupid to be shutting down at this precise point our principal vehicle in the UK for Muslim-Jewish dialogue? Surely we need more, not to be shutting it down? Why has the Secretary of State not honoured the commitment that he made to me to meet me, the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) and the noble Lord Singh to discuss this matter before making his decision, and will the Minister pay tribute and express thanks to the trustees and officers of the Inter Faith Network for the very important contribution that they have made to UK national life over the last 37 years?

I truly believe that inter-faith work makes a good contribution to our society. My constituency is one of the most diverse in the entire country, and I have on a number of occasions brought together my mosque, my synagogue, Christian churches and my gurdwara. We recognise the benefits of inter-faith activity. I thank the Inter Faith Network for its work; however, we have always been clear with that organisation and any other organisation or charity that the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities funds that they need to put in place alternative sources of funding. As I said, the Government cannot fund this organisation when a trustee is part of the MCB.

I was contacted last year by my constituent Esmond Rosen of the Barnet Multi Faith Forum, who expressed concern about the imminent withdrawal of funding from the IFN. As we have heard, it looked in July as if the problem was resolved —at least for the financial year—so it is regrettable that we are in this position. I completely understand the importance of not engaging with organisations that have hard-line views, but surely we can find some compromise to keep the IFN in business, because it does incredibly valuable work to foster respect and mutual understanding between different faith groups.

I thank my right hon. Friend for all her work on inter-faith matters. What has changed since July is the appointment in November of a trustee who is a member of the MCB. In terms of inter-faith work, there are so many examples of positive, thriving initiatives across the country that are bringing people together. The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities funds a number of those partners, including Near Neighbours and Strengthening Faith Institutions, which organise local-level inter-faith events to foster community cohesion.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms) for securing the urgent question.

Inter-faith and multi-faith dialogue are absolutely essential components of society, not only to resolve differences but to build strong and collaborative communities that are able to come together in times of need. Given recent events—the war and violence in Gaza—that is more important than ever. As I am sure the whole House recognises, the Government have a special responsibility to facilitate positive relationships between different faith communities, and although I appreciate that the Minister has now given some explanation of why they have chosen to withdraw funding for the IFN, outstanding questions remain.

Let me ask the Minister some straightforward questions. When was the decision to withdraw funding from the network made? What impact assessment was made, and what discussions were had about the vital need to continue to promote understanding about and between different faith groups, and to encourage co-operation? When was the Inter Faith Network notified of the decision? Does the Minister have plans to increase support for other groups to make up for any loss of provision arising from this decision?

Every Department will inevitably monitor and review the grants that they award, but the House should expect that to be done in the spirit of due process. As politicians, we have a responsibility to bring communities together. At a time when divisions are being exposed, I hope that the Minister can assure the House that the Government remain committed to inter-faith and multi-faith dialogue.

I thank the hon. Member for her comments. Again, I stress the importance of inter-faith work. I see it in my own constituency; it is very important. The Government are already supporting other institutions that do such work.

The hon. Member asked specifically for timelines. The Secretary of State wrote to the IFN on 19 January saying that he was “minded to withdraw” the offer of funding in light of what we have discussed. He invited the Inter Faith Network to make representations to him on this matter, and he received its response on 22 January. After careful consideration of those representations, he confirmed that he wishes to withdraw the offer of funding to the Inter Faith Network for the reasons that we have discussed. He wrote to the co-chairs on 21 February to inform them of his decision. I stress again that the Department has been very clear that the Inter Faith Network should have been developing other sustainable sources of funding.

I am proud to represent the constituency in this country with the greatest adherence to religious faith, and many of those faiths are minority religions. We have a very strong inter-faith council that brings together people of all religions to sort out their differences and sort out tensions. I have had representations from the Jain community, the Zoroastrian community and others, expressing their concern that the majority religions—the larger religions in this country—will always be able to have their say because of their strength and power, but the minority religions will not. Given the Government’s decision to withdraw funding from the Inter Faith Network, what is going to take the place of that important organisation that brings together people of all faiths, enabling them to settle their differences?

I thank my hon. Friend for everything he does with his faith communities in his constituency. As I have said, DLUHC continues to fund a range of partners, including Near Neighbours and Strengthening Faith Institutions; we believe in inter-faith work to strengthen community cohesion.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms) for having secured this urgent question; back in January, I secured an Adjournment debate urging the Government to think again about their decision. One of the things I find most concerning about how this decision has been handled is that, on occasion, journalists seem to have been in possession of letters from the Secretary of State to the Inter Faith Network at the same time as the IFN received them, or possibly before. That is no way to carry on. There has been very little attempt to have any serious conversations with the Inter Faith Network without those letters being in the public domain almost immediately. This work is more important now than ever before, so will the Minister think again about funding this organisation into the future? It is not too late.

As I have said, very proper consideration went into this decision after we had heard representations from the Inter Faith Network. The decision on Government funding has now been made. We have always been clear that the Inter Faith Network needs to develop alternative sources of funding; institutions such as these cannot be solely reliant on Government funding.

Is that not the point? This organisation has had about £2 million in income in the past five years, and three quarters of that income has come from the Government—from the taxpayer. Is not the message for other organisations that they should not be too dependent on taxpayer funding?

I have been contacted by my constituent, Diana Francis—who is a Quaker—about her deep concern regarding the sudden withdrawal of funds for the Inter Faith Network. My inter-faith group in Bath has done invaluable work to bring communities together, nurturing tolerance, understanding, and the dialogue that is so important between people of different religious backgrounds. Can the Minister not see how this sudden decision to withdraw funding at a time of heightened tensions only drives division, and that people in my constituency are really concerned that there is nothing that will replace an organisation as unique as the Inter Faith Network?

As I have said, we strongly welcome all of the inter-faith work that happens across our communities. We have always been clear that the Inter Faith Network needed to diversify its funding sources, and we were also very clear that funding would not be given after 2024 in any instance. That was communicated to the IFN back in July.

I declare an interest: I am an active member of Christians in Parliament and a former parliamentary churchwarden of St Margaret’s. The closure of the Inter Faith Network is not seriously about a relatively small amount of money; it is about the message it sends at this time in our country, when all of us in this House are working for inter-faith dialogue, trying to cool the atmosphere and address the problems we know about in many communities in this country. Psychologically, it is the wrong time and the wrong move. Please, for the good of our country and for community relations, will the Government think again?

As I have said, inter-faith work is very important, and we fund a number of organisations to do it. I will not repeat the names; I have already mentioned them. This decision was taken because, as part of the core governance of the Inter Faith Network, there is a member of the MCB, with which the Government do not maintain relations.

I reiterate the points that other Members have made, particularly those of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms) and my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch). For this to happen in the current international context is absolutely outrageous. It is a politically obtuse decision. May I press the Minister on the questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) about the risk assessment the Government have done to understand the impact on community relations?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. As I have said, very careful consideration went into this decision. It has been a long-standing policy of successive Governments, first introduced in 2009 by a Labour Government, not to engage with the MCB.

I listened carefully to the Minister’s response to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms), when she said that the Government take inter-faith work very seriously, but actions speak louder than words. Cutting off funding with just a few hours’ notice is not helpful to this important organisation. What steps will DLUHC now take to support dialogue in any areas where it has been lost?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. As I say, DLUHC funds a number of organisations that work very intensively at a local level to support inter-faith work and community cohesion.

I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. As images from outside this House last night made clear, it is very important that people of all faiths have a point at which to meet and to focus on the things that draw us together, rather than those that divide us. How will the Government and the Minister achieve that when this body, the Inter Faith Network, closes? How can we—that means all of us in this House together, and those outside this House—continue on journeys of embracing all faiths and increasing awareness of those faiths?

I think understanding of faiths is incredibly important, and that is why we encourage inter-faith work, especially at a local level. I have already talked about what I do in my constituency, and I find it very valuable. In this particular instance, we cannot continue to fund the Inter Faith Network, but we do fund other organisations, and we wish them well. We have always made it clear to the Inter Faith Network that it needed to develop alternative sources of funding.