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Inter Faith Network

Volume 836: debated on Thursday 22 February 2024

Commons Urgent Question

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my honourable friend Felicity Buchan to an Urgent Question in another place. The Statement is as follows:

“May I thank the right honourable 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 my honourable friend the Minister for Local Government said during an Adjournment debate on this on 10 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. The Secretary of State 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 are and continue to be fully supportive of developing and maintaining strong relationships across faiths and beliefs”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating that Answer. Our country is strengthened by the richness and diversity of the faith traditions here, but the Government have a responsibility to help to facilitate positive relationships between different faith communities—all the more so in these difficult times.

We have now had some explanation of what has gone on here, but there are outstanding questions. First, funding for the current financial year was offered to the IFN last July, so can the Minister explain when the decision was taken to withdraw it and, crucially, whether the charity was told before the work being funded during this year had been undertaken? Secondly, have the Government made plans to make up for this loss of capacity by supporting other work facilitating relationships between faith communities?

I can assure the noble Baroness that we have kept the IFN informed of every move that we have made on its funding issues, and it has had the chance to discuss them with us. As for other funding, I absolutely agree with her that work facilitated and supported by government is really important for inter-faith work. I personally go and see a lot of inter-faith work going on, and we are still supporting more than 800,000 a year in organisations—people such as Near Neighbours and others that are doing this important work in our communities.

My Lords, whichever way you look at this, the optics are not good. It was news to me that the Government do not engage with the Muslim Council of Britain. Our group met its new, and first female, secretary-general only a few weeks ago. I have two questions for the Minister. First, this has been a long-standing non-relationship, promoted quite a few years ago; is it not time that the Government reviewed this non-relationship with the Muslim Council of Britain, particularly in the light of the current situation and the fact that it works with over 500 organisations to promote knowledge and understanding of the Muslim faith and counter islamophobia? Secondly, will the Government review this decision? It is petty, wrong-headed and counterproductive. It does not put the Government in a good light—but it could if the Government were prepared to review it.

My Lords, it is not just this Government; successive Governments of different colours have had a long-standing policy of non-engagement with the MCB. British Muslims are a crucial part of Britain’s history and our way of life in Britain today. Each and every Muslim in every community in every corner of the United Kingdom should know that their religion will never act as a barrier to achieving their ambitions. The Government recognise the discrimination and intolerance faced by British Muslims, particularly at this time. We will not tolerate anti-Muslim hatred in any form and will seek to stamp it our wherever it occurs. This does not mean, however, that the Government have to use public funds to support the influence of organisations such as the MCB. We have no plans to review this decision.

My Lords, I speak as a founder member of the Inter Faith Network back in the 1980s, when it was very difficult to get people of different religions into the same room to talk to each other. That initiative owed much to Brian Pearce, a former civil servant. The Inter Faith Network has done some remarkably good work, particularly in the celebration of the millennium and getting religion in the census. There has been a difficulty in this country in that there is a sort of rule that people cannot talk about religion—people from different religions would come together and talk about anything but the commonalities and differences in their religions. There has been movement in the direction of actually discussing the importance of commonalities and building on them. It is sad that this closure is happening at this time, especially as the reason given is that the board contains a member of the Muslim Council of Britain. It is not a proscribed organisation, and it is better to have people with different views talking together to move the country forward in respect for one another.

I completely agree with the noble Lord that it is important that we have safe places where people of all faiths can discuss the issues surrounding faith and their relationships and to get together in communities. I thank him for his work, including in the early days of the Inter Faith Network. It was funded by the department from 2007 and we have given it £4 million since then. We have always said to it, however—as we say to any organisation that we fund—that it has to diversify its funding streams in order to become sustainable. No organisation can be reliant for ever on government funding, because we just do not know what is going to happen. I cannot reiterate the views of the Government again.

My Lords, I too pay tribute to the work of the Inter Faith Network. As has been stated, surely the optics of this are not good. I would like to ask the Minister how far non-engagement extends, because surely, in our society, we want to encourage dialogue, even with those organisations that may express some views with which we disagree. To not be willing to engage at all with an organisation that has not been proscribed goes against all the efforts being made to bring our society together—it seems very strange.

I do not particularly think it is strange. It is a long-standing decision not to engage with the MCB. The Government are doing what successive Governments have done. The person was on the council as a member, but it was when they became a trustee that things became more difficult for the Government.

Since it has been a long-standing arrangement that the Muslim Council of Britain should not be regarded as an organisation that the Government talk to, would the Government now be prepared to review that?

I cannot say. Reviews like that are carried out by the Home Office. I will certainly take that back and ask the question but, as far as I know, there are no plans to look at it again.

Does the Minister think that the Government’s action in this case is proportionate, given the huge importance in our society of interfaith dialogue and the fact that one person seems to be spoiling the show? Surely the Secretary of State would have a broader vision than that.

The Secretary of State carefully considered the implications of this and of ceasing the funding, including the potential impact on the Inter Faith Network itself and interfaith relations in the United Kingdom. The noble Lord is absolutely right: interfaith work is valuable, but there are very many more positive examples of thriving initiatives across the country that bring people together. That does not require us to use taxpayers’ money in a way that legitimises the influence of organisations such as the MCB.