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Church of England: Welfare Provision

Volume 703: debated on Wednesday 9 July 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What is their response to the report Moral, But No Compass commissioned by the Church of England.

My Lords, the report was commissioned to inform the Church of England’s internal discussion about welfare provision. It would be premature for the Government to anticipate the church’s considered views on the report by making a formal response at this stage. We have discussed the report with the church and have agreed to facilitate cross-departmental discussions on the issues raised.

My Lords, although I am grateful for that indication that there is an intention to establish a working group on the issues raised, it is a little harder to thank the Minister for her inability to reply to the Question, especially as the report was endorsed by the Archbishops of York and Canterbury and commented on by her right honourable friend in another place, Hazel Blears. Therefore, will the Minister take this opportunity to put on record the Government's deep appreciation of the many ways in which the Christian churches and other faith-based traditions make contributions to our national life in so many sectors such as the National Health Service, the voluntary sector and international development?

My Lords, as I explained, we are waiting for the church's own response to the report, which is merely courteous. We will certainly take up the archbishops’ joint challenge to consider the report very carefully. I am happy to endorse what the noble Baroness says. We have a unique and instinctive partnership with the church. We want to encourage that alongside a stronger third sector. We value all its work to promote social capital and social connection. We see it as a vital partner and acknowledge it as a vital influence in shaping the interfaith framework that we will bring forward shortly, which will create even more opportunities for people of faith to work together with the whole community.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her generous remarks about the Church of England and its work in partnership with others. Is she aware that clergy and congregations throughout the country are to be found running post offices, cafes, doctors’ surgeries, asylum rights centres, homeless, outreach and bereavement counselling, job creation and economic regeneration programmes, eco-initiatives, youth clubs, peace networks and campaigns for the world’s poor? Will she acknowledge that that establishes the Church of England in a lead position in relation to reaching the most disadvantaged sections of our society? Will she therefore commit to pursuing the dialogue with the Church of England about how these recommendations can be taken forward?

My Lords, what an extraordinary list. I think in this context of the Archdeacon of Leicester, Richard Atkinson, and his work with the New Deal for Communities in a very deprived part of Leicester, Braunstone. He has enabled that community to put itself back on its feet after many years of neglect. That work is replicated in many parts of the country. I am delighted to say that, alongside the interfaith framework, we will also be publishing the work that we have done with the Church Urban Fund, which encourages local action and celebrates the excellent case studies that are going on in terms of local partnership.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that parts of the report give cause for concern for our society? In particular, I refer to the widely held perception of respondents that the Government are positively excluding the church in matters of faith? I would appreciate it if my noble friend could disabuse me and others of that view. In particular, will she confirm that churches, as we have just heard from the right reverend Prelate, are a great comfort to our society?

My Lords, I am very happy indeed to confirm that. We were rather disappointed with the report because we believe that the instinctive partnership that we have may be hard to evidence in detail because much of the church’s work is hard to evidence in detail. However, it goes back a long way and has a great future. One problem was that none of the authors of the report came to talk to my officials in the department who work in the cohesion and faiths division about the work that we are doing. I have a great deal of evidence of how we are working with the third sector and faith-based charities throughout the country to reach those parts of our communities that no other organisation can reach.

My Lords, I first declare an interest as the spouse of a member of the clergy. Is the Minister aware that one of the main reasons why churches do not offer more youth and other community provision is that they face high hurdles in terms of the application process and criteria that they have to meet in order to bid successfully for government funding? Will she urge her colleagues to review that bidding process in order to make it easier for churches and other secular groups based in the community to bid successfully for government programmes?

Yes, my Lords. The noble Lord has identified a real problem: the commissioning processes are elaborate and small organisations and church organisations sometimes have difficulty in accessing funding. We are looking at a whole programme of better commissioning, of which I hope the Church will be able to take advantage, as well as better training for local authorities and councillors, who need more skill in commissioning the right people to deliver the right services.

My Lords, I am not a historian but, looking at our history, the Christian ethic is a great driver of development in modern society. Do the Government still accept that that ethic is the skeleton on which the whole of modern UK society hangs?

My Lords, yes. We are a diverse society, but our ethics, history and institutions are primarily shaped by our Christian heritage and continue to be so.

My Lords, the Charity Commission’s data and system of classification were found to be very weak, with a conscious focus on minority communities to the relative exclusion of the Christian faith. Will my noble friend examine this finding and say whether the Government will consider giving the Charity Commission additional resources to reorganise its measurement criteria?

My Lords, the best way to answer that is to quote from the chair of the Charity Commission’s letter of 14 June to the Times. The Charity Commission found that the evidence base was slightly dodgy in some ways and states:

“The report claims we underestimate and thereby selectively disadvantage other Christian charities. It bases this claim in part on a complete misconception about how we categorise registered charities, and in part on the fact that many Christian charities are currently exempted from registration”.

The letter goes on, and I commend it to the noble Lord.