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Religious Literacy

Volume 778: debated on Thursday 9 February 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to combat religious extremism and to promote a cohesive society by enhancing religious literacy at all levels of government.

My Lords, the Government are challenging all forms of extremism through our counterextremism and Prevent programmes. We are working closely with faith groups to understand the impact of policies and to improve religious literacy in government. The Home Secretary and the Communities Secretary hosted a round table for representatives of all faiths last November.

I thank the noble Baroness for that Answer, but there are still concerns. The Government paper on the hate crime action plan contained no mention of non-Abrahamic faiths. That suggests something about the religious literacy there. Does the Minister agree that democracy implies being attentive to the legitimate concerns of all sections of the community, not those of a single religious or other majority? Does she further agree that teachings and practices that go against human rights must be robustly challenged, but that we need to know something about what we are challenging before we can do that? Programmes like Prevent cannot be effective without such knowledge. One final point is that I have put the basics of Sikh teachings on one side of A4, and that can be done for other faiths as well. Should that not be essential for religious literacy in government departments?

I missed a little of the noble Lord’s question, but I think I have enough to go on. He said that the hate crime action plan did not specifically refer to non-Abrahamic faiths, but the tenets of the action plan cover points on hatred on the basis of religious belief, disability, sexuality and so on. It is therefore implicit within it that, for example, Sikh communities are included. As for the understanding of religious literacy within both government and wider society, both the Home Office and DCLG engage widely and often with faith communities. Shortly after the referendum, I myself met people from different faiths, including Sikhs, in Manchester to discuss religious literacy, the outcome of the referendum and the corresponding hate crime attached to it.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that there has been no violence and no torture, and no wars have been waged, in the cause of humanism?

My Lords, can my noble friend tell us whether the Prevent strand of the Government’s Contest strategy is part of their counterterrorism strategy or their counterextremism strategy? Can she also say whether there is a religious literacy element to the training given to Prevent co-ordinators? If there is, would she be happy to place a copy in the Library?

My Lords, the central tenet of the Prevent strategy aims to protect young people who might be vulnerable to both extremism and terrorist preaching either online or in their communities. Actually, it is a protection mechanism, not a targeting mechanism, as I am sure my noble friend will be aware. It is a protective element to help prevent some of the external forces to which our young people are subjected in a negative way prevailing.

My Lords, just three weeks ago I spent half a day in an immigration removal centre and so gained an up-to-date insight into some of the complex and sensitive issues that are being dealt with there. Concerns continue to be raised about the level of religious literacy among some of the asylum caseworkers. Is the Minister content with the level of training that they are getting in religious literacy and, if not, what can be done to improve it?

The right reverend Prelate raises a very important point about the detention estate. Certainly an awful lot of time and effort has gone into the training of staff in terms of the sensitivities around LGBT detainees; in terms of his important point about religious literacy, I will go back and check on just what training is given in that area.

Does the Minister agree that last weekend’s Visit My Mosque initiative, which hundreds—indeed, maybe thousands—took advantage of, was a very good and positive example of promoting greater understanding, community cohesion and tolerance in our society? Does she think that we should have more such initiatives from all faiths to bring people together and establish a more understanding and truthful dialogue?

The noble Baroness raises a really good point about community cohesion. There was a mosque event just near to me last weekend and I had reported back that it was incredibly successful. In fact, the same community holds a summer fair, to which all their neighbours are invited and which is a great initiative—so yes, I would encourage more.