Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am grateful for this opportunity to discuss the role of religion in public life. Religion today has a bad press and has been pushed into the margins of society. Even there, key beliefs such as the importance of marriage are attacked by those intolerant of the rights and beliefs of others. To me, as a Sikh, this pressure to keep religion out of public life is like saying, “Keep ethical considerations out of politics”. This is bad in itself but what is worse is to see some within our different religions reacting to this pressure by withdrawing from involvement in daily life to contemplate the hereafter.
This disconnect between the practice of religion and the challenges and concerns of daily living is totally contrary to the central teachings of religion. Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith, was highly critical of some holy men who had withdrawn to the wilderness in search of God. He told them that God was not to be found in the wilderness but in the service of our fellow human beings. He taught that religious disciplines like fasting, going on pilgrimages and, for Sikhs, the serving of food in the gurdwara to whoever enters, are simply reminders of our responsibilities to wider society. Unfortunately, some people in religion see these as an end in themselves and no wonder many in wider society see religion as being irrelevant to our lives. If we look at the behaviour of those who misuse religion in the pursuit of power or to justify cruel or discriminatory behaviour, we can see why religion has got such a bad public image.
Looking at the world about us, it is right to acknowledge the huge advances made by secular society in the pursuit of material wellbeing. Astonishing advances in scientific understanding and gigantic leaps in medical and genetic research mean that we are now able to play with the very building blocks of life, with the prospect of treating previously incurable disease and significantly increasing our life span.
For some, life has never been so good, but not for all. Alongside these positive achievements, we also have a record prison population of about 90,000. More than 10,000 traumatised and bewildered children are taken into community care every year. When we consider that the annual cost of keeping someone in prison is about £38,000 and that of keeping a child in care is about £2,500, we get a small glimpse of the financial cost of irresponsible living.
Only last weekend, the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, said that more children should be taken into care to save them from,
“soiled nappies and scummy baths, chaos and hunger, hopelessness and despair'.
We have record numbers of abortions and teenage pregnancies and binge drinking, not only among the young but, as we have heard recently, even among the elderly as a way to cope with the tensions and problems of selfish and uncaring society. The use of drugs in the search for elusive contentment has risen dramatically.
We regularly address such issues in your Lordships’ House, asking what the Government are going to do about this or that. The carefully researched answers couched in elegant terms amount to, “Not a lot”. This is not a criticism. Limited amounts of money can be shifted about but the real problems go much deeper. It is a bit like trying to treat the spots and sores of deeper maladies with cosmetic creams.
When Jesus Christ taught that,
“Man shall not live by bread alone”,
he reminded us of the futility of pursuing a mirage of happiness through more and better material possessions. The fallout from lifestyles that disregard wider responsibilities is seen in rising rates of divorce and separation. Children from divorced or separated parents, once a comparative rarity in the classroom, are now all too common, often showing patters of behaviour that link them to physical or emotional abuse.
Our different religions acknowledge the importance of the material side of life, but also remind us that this must be accompanied by constant reflection on the ethical implications of what we do and, importantly, active consideration for the wider well-being of society—something that Sikhs call “sarbat ka bhalla”.
It is sometimes argued that the problems created by selfish living and a lack of wider responsibility can be addressed by better citizenship training. The difficulty here is that citizenship looks at society as it is and teaches children to conform to transient and sometimes questionable social norms. Religion frequently challenges such norms. For example, in the 1950s, accommodation adverts in shop windows would often say: “No blacks or coloureds”. This was accepted by the culture of the times but opposed by religious teachings.
Today, we have both the challenge and opportunity of different faiths living side by side and must now move beyond superficial niceness to actively promoting common values that benefit society. The one God of us all is not interested in our religious labels but in what we do.
Our different religions remind us that the well-being of society starts with the family and a recognition of the importance of marriage as a committed relationship in which a couple are prepared to endure trials and tribulations to ensure a stable and positive environment for children. In school, children are taught the three Rs of basic education. In the home children can learn the equally important three Rs of right, wrong and responsibility.
We live in a society where different lifestyles are rightly respected. However, we cannot afford to ignore the harm done to children by transient and selfish relationships. A true story puts it better than any words of mine. Two children were seen fighting hammer and tongs in the school playground. Finally a teacher managed to prise them apart and asked what it was all about. Eyes brimming with tears, the smaller boy said, “His dad has taken my mum away”. We cannot afford to ignore the clear findings of surveys by Civitas and the ONS that show that in general married couples enjoy better health and better home care in old age than their single and cohabiting peers, and that children who live with married parents do better at school.
In recent years, the Government has made tentative attempts to engage with faiths through various government-chaired committees. Unfortunately, the nature of this engagement is often reflected in the name of initiatives, such as Prevent, geared to preventing religions making nuisances of themselves. Instead of Prevent, we need a greater enabling focus that helps religions to work more fully at all levels with secular society.
It is true that some in secular society are working to address many of the ills of which I have spoken. Religion has huge potential to add much needed impetus to their efforts, in our common goal of a fairer and more responsible society for our children in a world of new challenges and opportunities.
My Lords, it is a privilege to speak in this debate after the noble Lord, Lord Singh. Like many other Members, I have benefited from his wise words on “Thought for the Day” in the morning—a good start to many days.
At its best, religious faith motivates people to make changes in society for the better. At national level, this might mean founding a charity or beginning a movement. At local level, it may mean starting an initiative to change one’s neighbourhood.
At present, the key marker in the social policy world is the idea of civil society. There are various definitions, but perhaps it is best described as that part of our lives which is neither the market nor the state, nor our lives as private individuals. The problem, however, is that civil society in general lacks capacity and resilience, largely as a result of being for many years undervalued, under-resourced and lacking the sort of entrepreneurial energy necessary to develop creative solutions to the problems that it faces.
In practical terms, and at the core of the issue at the level of local communities, this translates into two related sets of activities: how local people take part as human agents in bringing about change in their community or neighbourhood and, where they are not able to bring about change, how they can be enabled to join together to hold to account those who are responsible for their welfare.
These aspirations fit well with the core Christian themes about valuing people for who they are, recognising their God-given agency and intrinsic capacities, and building relationships of mutuality and dignity which create fellowship and provide a framework of values. This provides for a prophetic engagement, calling to account structures and systems that dehumanise and undermine human flourishing. These aspirations are supported by many friends of other faith groups.
I wish to refer to a charity, Near Neighbours; as its chairman, I declare my interest. The Near Neighbours programme was begun to increase social interaction between people of different faiths and ethnicities and people of no faith, and to encourage local people to come together to transform their community. This is done by working at different levels; by training faith leaders and young leaders; by providing local community workers; and by giving small grants of up to £5,000 to local groups with a good idea. In the areas in which Near Neighbours is working, a local centre, one of the Church of England’s network of Presence & Engagement centres, acts as a resource hub and focus for good practice in interfaith working.
So far, halfway through the three-year programme, Near Neighbours has given 300 small grants to a value of £1 million. These projects range from a small project working with young people of different faiths in a London park, where volunteers from a mosque and a church come together, to a series of meals between Jews, Muslims and Christians in Luton, a homeless drop-in centre in Leicester hosted by Christians and Muslims, a project in Bradford encouraging women of different faiths to learn to cycle and a Sikh-led project in Birmingham supporting parenting.
Faith communities have many resources: buildings, volunteers, local embeddedness and trust. They develop local leaders and share the values of hope, faith, love, forgiveness and peace, which our society so desperately needs. The Government have recognised in funding Near Neighbours that these resources can be unlocked to benefit local communities more widely. The Church of England and the Church Urban Fund have recognised that working in this way with the Government can deliver real results.
In a world where we see nations and faiths in conflict, Near Neighbours shows us that in our local communities people of faith can come together to improve our society.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Singh, on this important debate in the Chamber today and I will be delighted to hear Members of our House from different religions speaking this evening.
Today, I would like to tell you about my own Jewish connections and the Jewish community’s role in society. I am going to speak specifically about Mitzvah Day. I am proud to be one of its community advocators. This community-based project was held last Sunday, 18 November, in the UK and in many other parts of the world. It is a day when the Jewish community comes together to help society, not financially, but by giving our most valuable asset: our time.
Mitzvah Day is devised from the fundamental Jewish teaching of tikkum olam which means literally in Hebrew, “to repair and to heal the world”. On this day, my Jewish community joins with communities of all faiths, working together to promote happiness, duty and the importance of communities supporting our own society. We can do this through planting trees, collecting food for the homeless, or speaking to individuals who do not have family nearby. These are essential duties that are built in religions and in society.
My very good friend, the right honourable Ed Miliband, the leader of the Opposition, recently described Mitzvah Day so accurately:
“It’s through thousands of small actions that we build our families and our communities. The fruits of Mitzvah—small tangible signs of hope and solidarity—show that the shared wealth of a nation is measured not so much in pounds and pence, but in the bonds of compassion, care, and community”.
Compassion, care and community come together.
We speak of the importance of one nation—Britain as a community. The role of religion is important and evident in this Motion. Through communities and understanding we are all united. The contribution made by religious communities to our society is outstanding and we should recognise and praise their input into our country.
I want to ask the Minister how communities are being commended for their role in society and how our Government are using their initiative to build a stronger society in Britain. We must recognise and celebrate our true diversity and continue to work with all our minorities in our fine country and to keep Britain as it is: a truly unique place in which we are very fortunate to live.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Singh, for securing the debate today on one of the key issues facing the UK and its diverse religious communities.
The benefits of religion and of those who follow a faith to their communities locally or nationally cannot be underestimated. Others have spoken of problems in society today and I want to focus on the positive work of our faith communities. Six years ago, when I was deputy chair of the East of England Development Agency, we funded a report on the vital role played by faith communities in social, economic and spiritual terms in our region. The research was carried out by the University of Cambridge and it discovered that volunteer time in our faith communities was valued at a minimum of £30 million a year. Work is varied and its scope impressive—working with homeless people, support for those who abuse drugs and alcohol, and anti-racist projects as well as the more traditional social cafes and outreach groups from church, synagogue and gurdwara.
Particularly important has been the support and, therefore, the benefit to child-focused services, including a project in Watford called Girl About, supported and promoted by the Soul Survivor church, working across Watford in a safe and supportive environment with vulnerable young teenage girls in and out of school. There is also much work in faith communities with the elderly. The survey mentioned that, in the region, more than 30% ran both formal and informal learning projects to help adults to improve their skills.
I remain impressed whenever I visit a faith-based organisation at its commitment to its outreach work. The Faith in the East of England report says:
“Secular bodies find it hard to understand that people of faith must be true to their faith, and not confuse this with a fear of religious people trying to convert others”.
It is on the basis of public benefit that the Charities Commission grants 99% charitable status to religious applicants. Last week, however, there was a heated debate in another place, suggesting that this might be under threat because of the case of the Preston Down Trust, a member of the Plymouth Brethren. It was denied charitable status because of an inability to demonstrate true public benefit and concerns about disbenefit to adherents, including, for example, not permitting any of their young people to go to university and worries about those who chose to leave. The debate in Hansard suggests that all Christian charities are now under threat as a result of this case.
The truth is far from that. Nearly 20% of all charities on the register are for the advancement of religion, with many hundreds of new Christian charities being registered each year. The commission is working with many faith groups to make applications easier and faith groups were a key part of the consultation in 2006 before the new guidance came into place. The Evangelical Alliance said of the new guidance:
“Religious Charities can be reassured that the propagation and teaching of faith principles will continue to be regarded as beneficial, provided it is open to and directed towards the public as a whole”.
This last phrase is key to the Preston Down Case, and why it differs from others. Others may speak on this later in the debate, but I am aware that, even with recent improvements, many of the brethren groups are not what we would describe as truly open, as they have restrictions on free and open contact with the outside world, especially with family members who have left. Contrast that with the exceptional contributions by many faiths that I have outlined earlier and the clear guidance from the Charity Commission. I think we have much to be proud of from across our faith communities, and their contribution to the United Kingdom today.
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity afforded by this debate that the noble Lord, Lord Singh, has initiated today. I congratulate him and thank him for his inspiration over the years as a contributor to Radio 4.
As in all things, there is good religion and bad religion. It can be argued that since 9/11 a view has developed that religions are most authentic when they are most angry and irrational. All of us who claim a religious foundation to our lives need to acknowledge the reality of toxic behaviour, but good religion seeks the welfare of others and is a force for good in society.
Much of what our society is today is a consequence of the enlightenment. Christians like John Locke sought to develop a world view on how we live together valuing one another in all our differences, within a pluralist society. Christianity is not a religion of the private sphere, however much some inside the tent, and outside, might wish it. Christianity is a faith which seeks, in many creative ways, to contribute to the manner in which we understand ourselves. The value we give to each person, and the delicate balancing act which is at the heart of all politics, is ultimately about how we hold together questions of identity and difference, belonging and otherness.
Often in the Church of England, our debates are proxy for wider debates within society. Matters of gender, equality and minorities are all issues that we meet elsewhere in society. Yes, I know we did not crack it on Tuesday over women bishops. Although that has undoubtedly been a public relations disaster and a serious setback, religion is faith committed to working at it. The Church of England belongs to all within this country and when we get it wrong, we are left in no doubt about it and we have to make amends. I believe that we will do so, particularly in the matter that we have debated this week. I thank your Lordships for all the contributions that have been made, some of them not so easy to accept but nevertheless importantly said.
If your Lordships want to see the contribution of religion in British society today, look at your local church, synagogue, mosque or gurdwara—not at the Taliban or the Tea Party. Religion is both shaped by society and helps in the shaping of society. There is mutuality here. Like many, I became a Christian because I wanted to participate in creating a world in which compassion, justice and the making of peace for all humanity might be possible. I found that the manifesto of Jesus Christ offered me a credo for such hope. Yet many others will have come to the same conclusion and dedicated themselves to the same vision inspired by some other creed or manifesto, or that innate compassion within them whose origin they simply do not understand but know what it commands them to do and to be.
Religion can be both radical and reactionary, often at the same time, but then it is to a greater or lesser extent a human creation. God, however perceived, is always greater than human interpretation. When, at its most radical, it offers a critique of society’s value, where that is necessary, and proffers support in the outworking of a vision for a more human and humane world, religion is good. Religion both shapes and is shaped by society. Well managed, both serve each other and the common good. There will of course be conflict from time to time but we should not be afraid of that. Religion is not so much about giving answers as providing an environment for dialogue in society, where all may seek the welfare of the other and strive for the betterment of all humanity.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Singh for bringing this debate before the House. There remains a keen interest in this House in discussing matters of communities, faith and religion, even though they are too often neglected elsewhere, and this interest is very welcome. I thank the Minister, who I know has a keen interest in these matters, for joining us in her new role.
It seems to me that this debate on the role of religion in society is asking three questions. What do people think the current role of religion in society is? In reality, what is the actual role of religion in society? Perhaps most importantly, what do we want the role of religion in society to be? I do not claim to have definitive answers to these questions. I have been a practising Hindu for as long as I can remember. I would never claim to be an expert on my faith; indeed, I often regret that I do not know more about it. When growing up in Uganda, I was fortunate to be taught at a local Christian school. While I may not always have stayed on the right side of the disciplinary elements of the school, I left there with a very healthy respect for and interest in Christianity.
It was only after moving to Britain, when I was 17, that I really began to take an active interest in my faith—a faith that I consider to be more of a way of life. My faith has given me courage and strength when times are hard, guidance when the path is not clear, a community that is stronger together and joy on so many occasions. These benefits, if I may call them that, are not unique to any one faith and I am sure that many people here and elsewhere can empathise with them. However, I consider myself to be a man of faith.
It is worth highlighting the inspirational nature of faith and religion. Faith inspires me to be a better human being. You only have to look at the work of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to see how faith can inspire someone. This inspiration is not limited to Iain Duncan Smith; vast numbers of believers are committed to creating a better society here and abroad through volunteering, politics and work. In my own community, so many institutions and charities are manned and supported by volunteers who act so selflessly.
Religion can and does have a very positive impact on society but, as I am sure everyone here would agree, this is not a one-way street. Far too many conflicts have their roots in religion and far too often the tone of religious organisations feels divisive, exclusive and outdated. I appreciate that that is easier said than done, but religions need to ensure that they are relevant to the societies that they encounter. If we continue to presume that all the instructions written thousands of years ago in our respective faiths are literally the be-all and end-all, I fear that the importance of faith will continue to decline, and this will leave our great faiths on the defensive.
People’s understanding of the role of religion in society may not always match up with what is happening, but it is undoubtedly true that those of us who believe in the power of fait need to work hard to explain why it is relevant. We must ensure that we are relevant but not outdated—that we are bringing people together through our deepest principles and not being divisive.
Last year the Prime Minister gave a speech in Oxford to mark the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. He said that Christian values were central to Britain and should be treasured, including responsibility, hard work, compassion and humility. These are the values that I identify with my own religion as well, and I believe that any society with those values at its core will always flourish.
My Lords, yesterday I was proud to speak at the School of Oriental and African Studies to inaugurate an exhibition called “Sugar and Milk”. It was about 10 Zoroastrian Parsee families who settled in south-east England and the stories of what happened to them after they settled in this country. What came across strongly was their identity and their religion as part of integrating into British society. Before I left India to study in this country as a 19 year-old, my father told me, “Son, you’re going to live abroad, and I don’t know if you’re going to come back to India. Wherever in the world you live, integrate with the community that you are living in to the best of your ability but never, ever forget your roots”. In the exhibition I saw how proud those families were of their roots and of their religious identity.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Singh, for initiating this debate at this crucial time, in Interfaith Week. My friend, the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, has written and spoken a lot about identity and the fact that we as individuals have not just one identity but several. For many of us, part of that identity is our religion. In my case I am proud to be an Indian, I am proud to be British, I am proud to be an Asian Briton and I am proud to be a Zoroastrian Parsee.
Mahatma Gandhi is reported to have said that in numbers Parsees are beneath contempt, but in contribution, beyond compare. The basis of the Zoroastrian faith is three words: humata, hukhta and huvarshta—good thoughts, good words and good deeds. The good deeds that religions promote have been mentioned; the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, said that nearly 20% of charities in this country are linked to religions and their advancement. The Prime Minister has spoken about the big society. Religious communities practise the big society and have been doing so for generations. It is not just about religious communities looking after their own, either; it is about putting back into the wider community, and I am proud to say that the Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary, does just that.
Yet, sadly, religion is declining in this country. Some surveys show that 50% of people in this country say that they have no religious affiliation, while one survey said that 65% of youngsters between 18 and 24 had none. I am proud to be a patron of the Faiths Forum for London, working alongside my friend Maurice Ostro, the founder patron, with the nine faiths of the Inter Faith Network to try to promote interfaith dialogue and harmony.
I was brought up in the Indian army, and my father was posted all around India. The Indian army is huge, over 1 million strong, and contains all religions. I was brought up from childhood to celebrate different religions and their festivities, whether Sikh, Muslim, Hindu or Christian. I went to several schools, Anglican and Jesuit. India is one of the most secular and pluralistic societies in the world.
We talk about tolerance of faiths and communities. I hate the word “tolerance”—we should be celebrating each other’s religions and faiths. The most important thing is that no relationship can exist without mutual trust and respect. If there is mutual trust and respect among our religions, we have such a great future ahead.
I think the Minister said that this Government do God and religion. Are they doing enough to encourage and promote religion and religious faith? Could they do more? What religions do more than anything else is promote integrity and values. Religions are not about rituals or doing things right, but about doing the right thing. We are so lucky to live in one of the most open countries in the world, and I am so proud of the fact that we have wonderful celebrations of religions in this country.
I thank my noble friend Lord Singh for securing this debate. There are hundreds of different religions throughout the world. Christianity, Islam and Hinduism are embraced by nearly 75% of the world’s population. Christianity has become the largest religion in the world. There are about 1 billion Catholics and nearly half a billion Protestants. Islam is the second largest and the fastest growing religion in the world today. Muslims are estimated to number 1.1 billion. Hinduism dates to about 2,000 years before Christ. It is the source of Buddhism and Sikhism. Today there are some 800 million Hindus in the world.
Since the earliest prehistoric times, faith and belief have always been part of the texture of human society. Neither in the past nor in the present is it possible to find a society in which religious issues have not been raised. It may even be claimed that human endeavour in the realm of religion and belief has been more strenuous and longer lasting than efforts in the area of knowledge and art. In many historical events, religion can be seen to have dominated all relationships. All members of society belong to the church. Churches, sects, denominations and cults are religious organisations. The differences among them lie in their relationship to the social environment. It is possible that in many human societies unfavourable economic conditions, stagnation and backwardness may coexist with religious belief, but this coexistence does not necessitate any causal relationship; one cannot be presented as the cause of the other.
The espousal of a religious doctrine influences the way a person views the world, and when an entire society of people adopts the same religious beliefs, cultural, political, and economic changes are inevitable. Elements of society such as geography, resources and outside pressure also influence religious doctrines. Although societies and religions differ a great deal from one to the next, the connections between the two are inherently evident and similar in all religions. The power of humans to control events is limited, so religion provides an institutionalised means of adjusting to life’s uncertainties and risks. Humans need to feel that the world is comprehensible and that there is a rhyme and reason for the events of their lives. Religion is generally perceived as fulfilling social functions, such as preserving and solidifying society, creating a community of believers, cultivating social change and providing a means of social control. It also fulfils personal functions, such as answering ultimate questions, providing rites of passage and reconciling people to hardship.
In traditional societies, religion was seen as an authority in all areas of social life; few activities remained unaffected. In modern industrial societies, religion is one of many specialised institutions. As a result, religion has been stripped of many of its former functions and must compete with other institutions for authority. To the extent that individuals accept religious teachings and incorporate them in their business, politics, education or family life, religion has an indirect influence on these spheres. However, religious institutions have no direct authority or control. Whenever religion has played its proper role, society has been able to maintain a relatively peaceful balance and harmony among the generally disruptive and self-interested tendencies of politics and economics. Thus, the original role of religion prefigures the idea that civil society is needed to balance and correct the competing interests of state and capital in modern societies.
The proper role of religion has been to provide a higher purpose and meaning to human life that transcends limited self-interest; to counterbalance the disruptive tendencies of politics and economics with shared values able to hold society together; to provide a moral structure in which human beings act; and to stand up for and protect the “little ones”—those who are marginalized and oppressed within the usual power schemes. However, religion has often failed to play its proper role.
Britain is a truly multicultural and multi-religious country. While some of our politicians may claim that multiculturalism has failed, there is a strong case to be made that it operates successfully every day when Britons of different faiths, ethnicities and backgrounds co-operate alongside each other to make the nation what it is today.
My Lords, I am immensely grateful to my noble friend Lord Singh for initiating this timely debate. Through centuries of human history, up to our present day, one of the most divisive elements is religion. That was never meant to be so but extremists in many faiths are bent on exploiting religion for their own nefarious, political agendas. As we know, religion can be a force for peace or war. It can heal or hurt. It can create or destroy on a scale unimaginable to previous generations. Human history is filled with episodes involved with religion and of misguided believers responsible for the slaughter of fellow humans on the altar of religion.
Although there is warmth and friendship here this afternoon, there is fear and hatred outside in the world. We cannot be discouraged, for there is enough commonality in world religions to enable us to reach out to our fellow humans. Although humans have demonstrated their genius for creativity and achievement, we have lost none of our ability to destroy and kill fellow humans with impunity. When extremists inflict violence on society in the name of religion, the innocent are often their main victims. That has to be resisted by the community at large. Voices must be raised in protest and we must withhold the robe of sanctity when it is sought as a cloak for violence and bloodshed, even if the perpetrators are from our own faith. As human beings, we are all more alike than different—irrespective of our physical make-up and self-created labels which might suggest otherwise. The challenge before us is to respect and understand others without compromising the bedrock of our own faith.
Let us now look at the philosophical analysis of religion, which relates to logic that the human can understand and relate to. Religion and politics speak to different aspects of the human condition. Religion binds people together in communities, and politics helps to mediate peacefully between their differences. One of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century came when politics was turned into a religion. The single greatest risk to the 21st century is that the opposite may occur, not when politics is religionised, but when religion is politicised.
Finally, in the vision of the modern thinker, trade would do for a man what politics could not; that is, tame passions and change the outlook of man from aggression to consumerism and production, thus integrating nations for mutual benefits from trade and finance. All these notions, however, do not answer man’s curiosity about himself. His sense of comfort, however, is well manifested in his loyalty to his tribe and community. Economics does not explain his quest for self-knowledge and identity. Religion answers this human dilemma. No other system explains, as religion does, our reason for being on this planet.
My Lords, I thank almighty God, or whichever deity your Lordships happen to choose this afternoon, that we do not have some Minister for spiritual affairs, because religion is, rightly, not a matter for the Executive or Parliament, despite the presence of all those right reverend Prelates and most reverend Primates in your Lordships’ House. The leading spin-maester of the previous new Labour Administration once said that they “didn’t do God”. Whatever my noble friend may say in her wind-up, I hope that her words will not include a pledge to set up some Minister of religion.
However, I hope that our assessment will, first, recognise that Governments can benefit much from the spiritual guidance and advice of religious groups and, secondly, give a clear recognition of the role that decent spiritual values play in our society, although I claim no monopoly in this on behalf of organised religions. One of my dearest friends who I admire most is at the same time highly clear-sighted on spiritual values and matters of right and wrong, while being what could only be described as a high-church atheist in his total disbelief of the eternal or any deity. I also trust that my noble friend’s speech will not strike a utilitarian note towards religious groups along the lines of just how useful their cash and skills are, at a time of organising the delivery of voluntary work in these moments of austerity. Then there is the assessment of the role of religions in the big society, of which, alas, we have heard not much these days.
In reality, religious groups have already for a long time involved themselves in the work of the helpful and hopeful small society of communities that surround synagogue, church or mosque. Essentially, in relation to religion’s role in the UK, the Government should ensure three things. First, they should ensure that sincerely and often long-held religious beliefs, when they do not happen to fit in with the political social policy priorities or fashions of the day, are not marginalised or, at worst, sneered on by those in power as being backward or out of touch with progress—that much abused word—but, rather, treated with reasonable respect. Secondly, the Government should reflect the concern of our indigenous faith groups for those persecuted abroad—from minority Islamic groups under attack in a Turkey, a Syria or an Iran to Christians of all hues, from Chaldean Catholics to those right-on evangelicals among the half million who have experienced total religious cleansing in post-conflict Iraq. Thirdly, the Government should bend over backwards on the home front to protect the freedoms of religious groups in the United Kingdom, however small or strange they might appear to our governing class.
For example, contrast my, “If it’s all right by His Holiness the Pope, then it’s certainly all right by me”, brand of Catholicism is many a liturgical mile away from that of the tiny Plymouth Brethren. However, we should be very cautious before we interfere with religious freedoms. They are now under attack on public benefit grounds in the United Kingdom. If such freedoms fall on this, other religious groups may well follow. We had all better watch out.
My Lords, I very much welcome this debate and appreciate the tabling of this subject by my noble friend Lord Singh. The problem is not, as the noble Lord has stated, with other religions. Like him, I am deeply concerned about the increasing dominance of secularism. As a consequence, many Christians find themselves not only marginalised but in some cases victimised. I am sure that this applies to other faiths, too.
The UK is constitutionally Christian. It is explicitly not a secular state. The monarch at her coronation swore an oath to God, not to a secular philosophy. Thank God for her continuing faithful, godly service. History has shown that this Christian constitution provides for a tolerant society in which people of all faiths or none are free to worship or not as they please. It has provided the basis for the kind of stability, peace, prosperity, happiness and individual freedom that still eludes a great many countries in the world that have not had this important influence. It is why many of us are so proud of our heritage. There is much more one could say about the historical influence of Christianity on life in Britain. It is evident all around us in the Palace of Westminster.
It is difficult in the time allocated to the debate adequately to express my concerns. I am sure that we all feel the same. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, I chair one of the Christian charities that make up a huge proportion of our voluntary sector. This has been referred to already. Many of the charities attempt to provide valuable support in a society that our Prime Minister described as “broken”. It is seriously disturbing that many Christians should feel that their contribution to public life is now being not only ignored but denigrated. Atheist groups are actively campaigning to stop Christian and Catholic groups opening new schools—even going to court to get them stopped, as happened recently in Richmond. Christian charities are finding it increasingly difficult to get funding from public bodies.
I will give two examples. The late Earl Ferrers spoke of an example close to his home in Norfolk. A homeless charity run by a Baptist church was told that it would lose its funding unless it stopped allowing people to say grace before meals. Pilgrim Homes, a charity providing homes for elderly people, was denied funding by Brighton Council because it could not in all conscience comply with the diktat that all its Christian residents had to be questioned about their sexual orientation every three months. I find it difficult to believe that this is happening in Britain. I am sure that we are all aware of NHS nurse Caroline Petrie who was disciplined for making a kind, gentle offer to pray for a patient. The banning of prayers and the news last week about the demotion of Adrian Smith, who expressed a personal view about gay marriage, are further worrying challenges.
Most of these cases were resolved in the courts, but the fact that they were raised at all is indicative of how far we have departed from being a faith-based society. Despite the Minister’s assurance and the comments that have been made already, the prevailing political attitude that I am concerned about was succinctly expressed in the famous statement by Alastair Campbell, “We don’t do God”. We all want to live in a society where people, regardless of their religion, can make a full contribution to public life and be respected for it. We should not make compliance with some sort of secularist state orthodoxy a precondition for full participation in society. The power of God can change lives and influence communities and society. It has done so in the past. Doing God and doing good is what millions of people in Britain want the freedom to do today.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Singh of Wimbledon for introducing the debate. I will set it against the context of the polarisation that we are seeing between people who have faith and those who do not. That is something on which we have not yet spent enough time in this debate. We also see a broad lack of public understanding of the roles that faith can play in wider society. That is something I urge the Minister and the Government to reassess, by looking at the contributions that faiths have made. I will give some quick examples.
The first of these is the hospice movement, in which the UK has been, without doubt, the world leader. The modern hospice movement was founded by a profoundly believing Anglican, who built on the work already done by the Sisters of Charity, a Catholic order from Dublin. Both Dame Cicely Saunders and the Sisters of Charity founded our modern hospice movement, which has changed the way that we view death and dying in this country. It has been a good thing for all of us; it is something brought to this society by people of faith, because of what their faith told them about how people should approach their death. This is something that we have now managed to do in a multifaith, as well as a single faith, way—indeed in a non-denominational and non-faith way—but it started with faith.
The second is work with people with enduring mental illness. More than 20 years ago I was struck by the report of the Health Advisory Service into how people who are homeless and had long-term mental illness were treated. Often the line from the healthcare professionals was: “Do not bring your smelly homeless people to us”. It was the churches, the synagogues, the mosques, the gurdwaras, the temples and whoever else who picked up the pieces and sometimes—though not always—showed kindness. It is clear that faith organisations can make a great contribution to the well-being of people with mental disorders. It is also an activity and task carried by many faith organisations, which largely goes unrecognised by government.
So too does the work of many faith organisations, including my own West London Synagogue—I declare an interest here—in working with destitute asylum seekers. They cannot return to their own country, but are caught in a mess not of their own making caused by the unbelievable length of time it takes for applications to be processed and appeals to be heard. They are not allowed to work, either. The Government may not relish what some faith organisations do to help these destitute people, but they have to recognise that these people are still human and still here. This needs to be acknowledged. The noble Lord, Lord Janner, talked about Mitzvah Day, and it was on Mitzvah Day last week when members of my synagogue and people of many other faiths helped asylum seekers around London.
It is not only about what religion can bring but about how people are and what they believe. It is about the fundamentals of what makes human beings tick. It is about the need to give as well as receive—the volunteering and gift relationship ideas so rooted in faith. Governments have not been very good at recognising the role that religion can play in wider society. So will the Minister say whether the Government will now consider drawing in people of faith to debates about education for everyone, volunteering for everyone and the need to learn to give and receive? Politicians are no use at teaching these things, but religion can and at its best does. It does that day by day, not always well, but often brilliantly, setting a tone—as the noble Lord, Lord Patten, has just said—for wider society which the Government could and should recognise.
My Lords, the role of religion in society is recognised in our charity law, but this has become contentious in the case of the Preston Down Trust. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, that this is not the thin end of the wedge for the charitable status of our churches. I say that due to a comment in the decision letter from the Charity Commission, which says the question,
“will turn on the doctrines and practices of this particular religious persuasion”.
This also explains why, to my knowledge, none of the main denominations are at all concerned. This religious persuasion is the Exclusive Brethren, which sits under the universal leadership of Bruce Hales, in Australia. In August, this group incorporated in the UK as the Plymouth Brethren (Exclusive Brethren) Christian Church Ltd. I have family in this Hales Exclusive Brethren, which is not to be confused with any other brethren groups. The Hales Brethren hold to the doctrine of separation, so exclusives cannot live in semi-detached houses, as they share a party wall with non-brethren. They cannot eat with non-brethren, cannot have friends with non-brethren; they have no TV, radio, cafes, restaurants, etc. They can attend only brethren schools and they now work only for brethren businesses. Attending university is banned. Is it not contradictory to give gift aid to charities struggling to encourage young people into university and also to groups whose beliefs prohibit that choice for their young people? This is a very controlled environment to live and grow up in. Unsurprisingly, the preliminary findings of Andrew Mayers from Bournemouth University and Jill Mytton are that the mental health outcomes for former Exclusive Brethren are poor. I await with eager interest their full report.
Only last night I spoke to a gentleman who told me about someone who is currently in the Exclusive Brethren. The man had been to a pub and unfortunately he was spotted by a brethren brother, so he has been “shut up”, a term which means that no brethren can live with him. His wife and family were removed from the family home by the leadership and he has no contact with them. The brethren have also stopped doing business with him. The man has left the Exclusive Brethren, but his parents are still in. The only contact he has had with them is a five-minute conversation and he said to me, “They will not even have a cup of tea with me”. He also said, “I miss my parents so much”. But what about his children? That was the position I grew up in: cut off from my only living grandparent who was eight miles away because I was not in the Exclusive Brethren. This is why Kevin Rudd, the former Prime Minister of Australia, once said:
“I believe that this is an extremist cult and sect … I also believe that it breaks up families”.
If this is Christianity, it is not as we have ever known it before. I commend the Charity Commission on seeking to deal with this Christian sect, but many who would give evidence to the First-tier Tribunal fear the implications for families still in the brethren. The Charity Commission must ensure that victims can give evidence and tell their stories anonymously.
The Exclusive Brethren is a matter for the church collectively. I believe there needs to be a church-led inquiry into the Exclusive Brethren; a theological and psychological inquiry perhaps chaired by a former Archbishop. It is not a noble or honest response to seek to deal with a fudgy law in a decision letter than turns a blind eye to these victims. The Exclusive Brethren maintain that these assertions are without foundation, so they should welcome such an inquiry. Victims can be hard to find, but I hope that many former Exclusive Brethren will hear this debate and so will know that I am hosting an event in Parliament for former Exclusive Brethren so that parliamentarians can also hear their stories.
Groups about whom there is credible evidence that they harm health, split families and send no one to university can exist in a liberal society, but whether they should be charities is very much open to doubt. The religion and public benefit guidance needs to be clarified, but we also need clarity on the outer limits of what is acceptable behaviour for all religious groups.
I offer my apologies to the noble Lord, Lord Singh, not to have delivered a celebratory speech, but I cannot get out of my mind that there might be a young person listening to this debate in a brethren school who just wants to go to university. It is important that we should say that that is not wrong.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Singh of Wimbledon, for initiating this debate. I fear that he will not concur with most of what I am going to say, but I thought it important to speak in the spirit of bringing a bit of balance to the debate.
I want to emphasise the role and importance of the secular space in public life. In that arena I am a secularist, and secularists can be religious too. As a society we can uphold everyone’s right to their religion or belief as well as their right to change or abandon it. Religions have just as much right to express their views as anyone else, but those views should not be privileged in the framing of public policy and law unless specifically related to policies of non-discrimination. Secularism, often unjustly maligned, is becoming more widely understood and recognised as its importance in a multi-religious society becomes more appreciated. The UK could hardly be more multi-religious, but France, India and even the United States opted for secular constitutions to avoid hegemony by any one religion.
Separating religion and state enables those of all religions and none to participate as equal citizens. The fight for that equality, which we now take for granted, has been fought over hundreds of years by non-conformists, Catholics, Jews, and non-believers. In fact, in the 1880s the founder of the National Secular Society, the Liberal MP Charles Bradlaugh, was obstructed from taking his elected seat in another place four times because of his non-belief, and was responsible for the Oaths Act 1888 which ended this affront. We take the Bishops’ Bench rather for granted as something very normal, but, in international terms, it could hardly be less so. We sit in the only Parliament in the world that gives bishops the right to sit. None of our reform proposals contemplated their departure, except as a by-product of the wholly elected option.
Let me turn to same sex marriage to which the established church is so opposed. It is surely entitled to that view and to tell its flocks not to partake in it. However, what rather alienates those who believe in it is that the church has sought to put pressure on the Government not to legislate on same-sex marriage, despite knowing that liberal religious groups, the non-religious and probably many individual Anglicans and Catholics wish to proceed with it. The church is, therefore, still seeking to restrict others’ freedoms, and I invite it to ponder on this.
I admire much charitable work done in the name of religion. However, there are also secular charities, and doubtless those of all religions and none contribute happily to both. In a society in which church attendance continues to dwindle and congregations age—I am sure there are anecdotal exceptions, but the statistics are very clear—we rapidly approach a time when we need to think about the extent to which religious precepts should be allowed, often through the workings of both Houses, to override the view of the people on sensitive social issues. When I say “the view of the people”, I mean even religious people.
It is remarkable that, according to reputable polls taken during the Pope’s visit, only somewhere in the range of 8% to 15% of Catholics agreed with their church’s official doctrine on such sensitive social issues as contraception, homosexuality and abortion. In conclusion, I very much regret our House’s repeated rejection of assisted dying legislation and stem cell research. I am convinced that that was done on religious grounds, while the public are so markedly in favour of those.
The secular point on which I would like to conclude is that religions should not have privileged positions to restrict others' freedoms—something that they do far too often.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Singh, for initiating this important debate, for his wise and gentle contribution to the religious life of this country and for the part he has played as a founding member and vice-chair of The Interfaith Network for the UK, which this year celebrates its 25th anniversary. It has helped to ensure that religious groups that may elsewhere find themselves in conflict meet here in Britain in friendship and peace. This is a great blessing to us all.
Religion is often misunderstood in secular times. It is seen as a strange set of beliefs and idiosyncratic rituals, both of which we could lose without loss. A better way of understanding religion, even from the outside, is as a sustained education in a life lived beyond the self. Many—perhaps all—of the world’s great religions teach their adherents the importance of making sacrifices for the sake of others, through charity, hospitality, visiting the sick, helping the needy, giving comfort to those in crisis and bringing moments of moral beauty into what might otherwise be harsh and lonely lives. Religion is the redemption of our solitude.
Long before these functions were taken over by the state, religious groups, here and elsewhere, were building schools and hospitals and networks of support. According to the extensive research carried out by Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, regular worshippers today, in America and Britain, are more likely than others to give to charity—regardless of whether the charity is religious or secular—do voluntary work, give money to a homeless person, donate blood, help a neighbour with the housework, spend time with someone who is feeling depressed or help someone find a job. They are more active citizens and significantly more likely to belong to community organisations and neighbourhood groups. They get involved, turn up and lead.
Not for a moment do I say that to be good you need to be religious. However, religiosity as measured by attendance at a house of worship turns out to be a better predictor of altruism and empathy than education, age, income, gender or race. If this is so, the social implications are immense. Just as religions were building a welfare state before there was a welfare state, so now, and in the future, they may help sustain a welfare society in areas where the need for help is greater than the ability of Governments to provide it. They act as a counter voice to the siren song of a culture that sometimes seems to value self over others, rights over responsibilities, getting more than giving, consumption more than contribution, and success more than service to others. I therefore commend the Government for their support in bringing Britain’s many faiths together in acts of volunteering. I urge them to consider further ways of valuing the formidable altruistic energies of our faith communities for the good of all of us together.
My Lords, I rise with the deepest respect for the noble Lord, Lord Singh, and thank him for allowing us to have this debate. It has been a humbling experience to hear noble Lords across the House. I will endeavour to add to the mosaic of this discourse.
Islam has been present on our shores since 1707 and is a widely practised religion. There are hundreds of places of worship in addition to strong civil society organisations such as An-Nisa, the Henna Foundation in Cardiff, Radical Middle Way and the London Muslim Centre. These are the backbone of our young and old, and provide support to the community in general, as well as providing leadership and enhancing interaction with one another and helping us stand together in a crisis. The events of 9/11 and 7/7 were turning points for all of us, not least for Muslims. The subsequent government response, with the Prevent agenda, caused long-lasting damage vis-à-vis confidence and trust in our institutions, resulting in Muslims being made a suspect community. Those involved in Northern Ireland matters will appreciate the gravity of that impact. During the most difficult period, many of these organisations played a pivotal role in ensuring calm and enabling dialogue and engagement with government structures, within the community as well as wider society. There has been a remarkable amount of work at the grass-roots level to ensure peace and stability.
Religion has been a fundamental driver to this work. I pay tribute to the noble Lords, Lord Singh and Lord Sacks, the Inter Faith Network and the office of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, among many others who worked in close collaboration with faith groups, building strong alliances. As a result, we have a community growing in confidence about their citizenship of the UK and their obligations to society. There is good news, but it is not often spoken of or acknowledged. One survey found that the UK is respected and regarded highly by Muslim communities: 87% of Muslims feel a sense of belonging; 83% of Muslims feel proud to be British citizens; and 77% of Muslims strongly identify with Britain, while only 50% of the wider public do so.
There are vast arrays of community work going on. One example is that this November, a number of Muslim organisations came together in partnership with parliamentarians and launched an exhibition, held in the other place, that drew attention to the prevalence of Islamophobia but highlighted the contribution Muslims make as citizens in wider British society. While optimistic campaigns highlight the positive contributions Muslims make towards society as inspired by their religion, it is important to underline the devastating impact that misunderstanding religions has caused.
This lack of understanding on the part of wider society, whether in the media or in general public life, has contributed to harmful ideas about, and attitudes towards, Muslims. There has been a disturbing increase in Islamophobia and Islamophobic incidents. A study of newspaper articles about Muslims by academics at Lancaster University found that a majority of the articles referred to Muslims within the context of extremism and/or terrorism, and noted that:
“Overall the project highlighted a serious journalistic problem—Muslims who just get on with their lives aren’t seen as newsworthy”.
Worryingly, these misconceptions draw inappropriate links between Muslims and extremism, which contribute to Islamophobia and neglect the positive contribution that Islam inspires and requires Muslims to make in societies.
There are of course matters we as Muslims need to address—the facts that about 80% of women are economically inactive, the fact that women’s leadership is lacking in public life and the fact of changing society and family structures. All those have huge implications and we ignore at our peril the benefits of working alongside faith organisations to tackle these social effects on our society. I believe that faith is the building block that can contribute towards a cohesive society, but it must be on the basis that there is equity and justice among us all.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Singh, for giving us this opportunity to say a few words about things that matter to us. I was beginning to think that this debate should have been called “In praise of religion”. I was pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, put in a word or two that did not quite pass for praise of religion.
I am the last speaker, which is both an advantage and a disadvantage. I had some notes, but I felt that I ought to say things which have come to mind listening to all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. First, I am a secularist and an atheist, but I call myself a Hindu atheist because a lot of the principles that I live by are drawn from my Hindu ancestry and upbringing. I do have a set of principles. A lot of people seem to think that the only kind of atheist is like Dawkins; no, not all atheists are like him. I do not push my atheism on to anybody else. I say, “I am atheist; you have your own choice. If you do not wish to be an atheist, that is your choice”. At the same time, however, I hope that people would also say that to me.
The other thing that I strongly believe in is that if atheists or secularists push their views on other people, they become like the religious. Very often we find that religious people push their views on us. They like to make us feel that there is something wrong with us. I do not believe that there is.
The noble Lord, Lord Singh, is a very fortunate man. I do not know whether he realises that. He represents the most modern of the religions that we have spoken about today. It is the religion most suited for our modern life. The things that the founder, Guru Nanak, wanted the Sikhs to follow are very relevant today. It is just unfortunate that the followers do not follow them. I am afraid that that is the story of most religions: the followers do not follow their own religions. Guru Nanak did not know that he was starting Sikhism; he was a Hindu. But the Hindus were so tied up with ritual that he felt that something had to be done to bring people back to the principles rather than getting lost in ritual. The Gita, the most important book of the Hindus, says that ritual is the lowest form of worship. Everybody should take that to heart. Ritual is not what God watches. If there is a God, he looks at what kind of things you do and not the kind of worship you go into.
Having said that, of the two women who influenced me most, one was a Catholic nun and the other was a Salvation Army colonel. Why? They dedicated their lives totally to helping other people. This is where sewa comes in. I believe, first, in what the Gita says: you must do all your actions according to right and proper thinking. “Dharma” is not translatable into English, but it is your duty, the right way, the right thinking.
The second thing I believe in is the Christian saying from the Bible, that you should do to other people what you would like them to do to you. If the Christians just followed that, they could do no wrong. The third is seva, which the Sikhs say: service to other people. If you have just a few things to follow, you are in a better position than anybody else.
My Lords, I confess what pleasure it gives me to stand in a House as diverse as this, which can command speakers of this quality from across such a wide range. I, like others, must congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Singh, on bringing this debate to the Floor of the House. He, like me, has done his apprenticeship on “Thought for the Day”. I did it for 17 years. He had 10 minutes, and even the two and three-quarter minutes that “Thought for the Day” takes is under great pressure from me.
We have celebrated the undoubted positive outcomes of religion but, like other voices here and as a religious person, I want to congratulate those who have had the courage to ginger us up with their thinking today. Self-congratulation is not necessarily always the best way of looking at our religious beliefs or the contribution of our religions to society around us. The right reverend Prelate has alluded to some of that too. I welcome the debate with science, secularism and humanism. If we cannot stand on our own feet in proper debate I do not know what on earth the point is. There should be no privileges as far as I am concerned: I want to be kept on my toes and I want what I contribute to the public debate to be sharp, self-critical and to lead me to be ready to collaborate with people of good will wherever they come from. I therefore thank the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, for what she said. I also want to express that an essential element within religion, which is so often so tight-lipped, is a sense of humour that allows us to see just how puny we are sub specie aeternitatis.
There are two tests for good religion and every time I think about the contribution of religion to society I think of them. First is the offering of a safe space for its adepts and adherents. There has to be somewhere where the vulnerable and minorities of every kind can feel safe. There has to be somewhere they can go to where they can fraternise, mix with people and know that they are not at the mercy of circumstance. The second is the refusal of good religion simply to serve the internal needs of its own religious group. I do not want any religion turning into a cult: we have heard mention of that today. Nor should it become sectarian in its interests or scope. We have had plenty of evidence that religion needs to be outward looking. The Sikh religion, which emphasises service—as the noble Lord, Lord Singh, uttered in his very first sentence—is a good example of that.
I will obey those who say that I must not take up too much time and I will allow a little on the credit side to flow across the Dispatch Box to the Minister. This credit from me may be the last she gets, so I hope she will enjoy it.
When I came into this House in 2004, the BBC stopped me doing “Thought for the Day” because I had chosen to take the Labour whip and they cannot have politicians doing “Thought for the Day”. As you well know, nobody must have a point of view when they do that programme. I want to say, as a personal testimony that I was a member of the Labour Party before I was a Christian and I was not going to give that up for anything in the world. It was the Labour Party that opened my eyes to see the world in a particular way: it was my Christian faith that gave me the fire in my belly to go out there and do something about it. I have sensed in this debate that the fire is not only in my belly but in the belly of many of those who have spoken today.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, for giving me some credit but despite it I will have to rush through because I only have eight minutes in which to conclude.
I thank those who have contributed to this well informed debate, and particularly the noble Lord, Lord Singh, for focusing attention on this important subject. The noble Lord has extensive experience as a leading figure in the Sikh community and is an invaluable supporter of national and international interfaith work.
This Government believe that religion plays a vital role in British society. Not only do we support people in their right to follow a faith if they choose to do so; we also celebrate faith and faith communities’ contribution to society. I agreed with the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, when she spoke of the great contribution of faith in the areas of healthcare and education. As I put it in my 2010 speech to the Anglican Bishops’ Conference: unlike previous Governments—I am sorry, but I am going to have to say this—we do “do God”.
Faith communities make a vital contribution to national life and have done for centuries: guiding the moral outlook of many, inspiring great numbers of people to community service, providing help to those in need. Across the country, people from different faiths work hard in countless churches, mosques, temples, gurdwaras and synagogues, and in charities and community groups, to address problems in their local communities. The noble Lord, Lord Singh, summed this up better than I can when he spoke about the state being there when things in society go wrong, but religion being there from the outset to stop them going wrong in the first place. My noble friend Lord Hussain eloquently detailed his perspective on the role of religion today and its importance.
The 30,000 faith-based charities in this country make a huge difference at home and abroad. We warmly endorse the work of charities that do so much to support the fabric of society for the public benefit.
Research shows that people of religious observance are more likely to be volunteers. The Government are recognising and harnessing that fact. I congratulate my noble friend Lady Eaton on her contribution and leadership on this issue, specifically on the Near Neighbours programme. Through our £5 million investment in this Church Urban Fund programme we are using the existing infrastructure of the Church of England to build productive local relationships between people of different faiths.
Places of worship of different faiths in a town or city can sometimes be unaware of the work each is doing, often to address similar problems. The Government want to help build effective, co-operative working relationships between people of different faiths. We continue to fund the important work of the Inter Faith Network for the UK and the Faith-based Regeneration Network, intermediary bodies that link up, encourage and resource interfaith dialogue projects and faith-based social action. The previous Government had supported an annual Interfaith Week since 2009 and we are delighted to continue to do so.
The Government are also happy to support A Year of Service, to highlight and link up faith-based volunteering efforts during Her Majesty the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee year. The noble Lord, Lord Janner, was right to highlight Mitzvah Day, which is part of that. I am sure that noble Lords will agree that there could be no better tribute to Her Majesty.
The Government are also committed to maintaining the status of religious education as a compulsory subject that all pupils must study throughout their schooling, subject to parental choice. Religious education is important so that children can understand the history that has shaped the values and traditions of this country, forming a key part of promoting the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of children and young people. We consider religious education fundamental to children’s learning. The Government also remain committed to the provision of collective worship in schools—or, as I knew them, assemblies.
The noble Lord, Lord Curry, was right to say that the UK has a strong Christian heritage. As I said in a speech when I led the largest ever ministerial delegation to the Holy See earlier this year, Britain is proud of its established church and Europe must be more confident in its Christianity. It is therefore right that religious education reflects the fact that the religious traditions of Great Britain are in the main Christian. Last year, every state school in England was provided with a King James Bible to mark its 400th anniversary and recognise the huge influence it has had on our culture, language, society and values—values that my noble friend Lord Popat was right to say are as much his values as a Hindu as they are Christian values.
The noble Lord, Lord Curry, also raised concerns about the perceived marginalisation of Christians. I am in receipt of the Christians in Parliament All-Party Parliamentary Group report setting out these concerns, and we are currently considering a response to that.
Local authorities are responsible for drawing up locally agreed syllabuses, which non-faith-based maintained schools must follow. These syllabuses are broadly Christian, while taking account of the teaching and practices of the other principal religions in both that local area and wider Britain. Faith schools can develop their own syllabuses and we see thousands of fantastic Jewish, Hindu, Christian and Muslim schools setting the highest standards, both in faith teachings and more generally. This approach, which responds to local factors, giving local authorities a unique, locally agreed syllabus, chimes with this Government’s view of localism.
All academies have to teach religious education under the terms of their funding agreement with the Secretary of State. Academies are not required to follow a locally agreed syllabus, but can choose to do so. I am proud to say that one-third of free schools—our flagship education policy—are also faith-based.
Noble Lords will agree that freedom of religion is a fundamental human right. The Government defend the right of people to follow a faith and express that faith, free from discrimination, intolerance or persecution. In an important and enjoyable intervention, my noble friend Lord Patten was quite right to raise the international dimension of this freedom. I hope that he will take comfort from the fact that my role, both in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and at the Department for Communities and Local Government, deals with the international and domestic aspects of freedom of religion.
In 2010, this Government made it a requirement for all police forces to record anti-Semitic attacks. We are funding tighter security measures in Jewish faith schools. We appointed the first UK envoy for post-Holocaust issues, Sir Andrew Burns. We are funding the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Lessons from Auschwitz project and we are committing funds to the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, all moves which I know the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, welcomes and supports
We are now finally starting to tackle the more recent scourge of anti-Muslim hatred. As we announced last week, we are funding the Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks programme and have established the cross-government Anti-Muslim Hatred group, allowing us to respond department by department to the growing problem of anti-Muslim hatred. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, will welcome these initiatives. We have changed the law to allow councils to continue to hold prayers at the beginning of their meetings should they wish following an attempt by the National Secular Society to have the long-standing practice banned.
I was grateful to my noble friend Lady Brinton for her clarification on the ongoing Plymouth Brethren case and to my noble friend Lady Berridge for sharing her moving account and her expertise in this matter. The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, was right to ask what more we could do. I hope that, after his discussions with me, he will see the fact that the Zoroastrian community was represented at the Cenotaph on this Remembrance Sunday as a step in the right direction. The noble Lord, Lord Hameed, quite rightly raised the challenging issue of when faith is distorted and used as a tool for fear and violence. My noble friend Lady Berridge reminded us that this distortion is not confined to any one religion. The noble Baroness, Lady Flather, raised important issues of choice in religion and the choice not to have a religion. I am sure that many noble Lords are, like me, relieved to hear that she is not of the Dawkins brand of atheism.
This Government believe that faith should have a seat at the table in public life. I agree with my noble friend Lady Falkner that this is not a position of privilege but that of a strong contributor to the public debate. Yes, there will be setbacks both in the public debate and the debate within faiths, as the right reverend Prelate alluded to, but the place of faith in the public debate should not be altered as a result. Indeed, my appointment as the first Minister for Faith and Communities—not for spirituality, but for faith and communities—demonstrates the Prime Minister’s commitment to the voice of faith communities being heard at the Cabinet table. The Prime Minister has said that our faith communities make Britain “stronger” and he was right to say that,
“we are a Christian country. And we should not be afraid to say so”.
This Government have held faith receptions at Downing Street for major festivals: Vaisakhi, Eid, Hanukkah and Diwali—and, yes, it was right that this coalition Government introduced the celebration of Easter as well.
When I first set the tone for this Government’s faith agenda in 2010, declaring that we would “do God”, many warned that this was something that a government Minister should not say. Two years on, I am heartened to see that so many Ministers have got behind this agenda, and our actions demonstrate the importance that we attach to the role of religion in British society.
House adjourned at 6.47 pm.