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Covid-19: Faith Groups

Volume 689: debated on Thursday 11 February 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Tom Pursglove.)

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for granting this debate. I hope that it will draw attention to the extraordinary scale and value of faith groups’ contributions in response to the pandemic, and that we will consider how to make more of the potential of faith-based groups working alongside local and national Government.

I chair the all-party parliamentary group on faith and society, established in 2012. Our aim is to support faith-based contributions to communities, to help make those contributions better known and, where we can, to help remove hurdles to realising their full potential. When we started, we held a series of meetings with faith-based groups contributing to welfare to work, to health and wellbeing and to work with young people—recognising that most youth work in Britain now is undertaken by faith groups—and groups working on international aid.

It quickly became clear from those discussions that the groups often had a problem with their local council. Councils suspected that the groups were only really interested in trying to convert people, or that any service they provided would be biased in favour of their own members. In any case, from the perspective of a hard-pressed council officer, faith groups are difficult: if they work with one of them, will they offend the others? After all, these are rather odd people; they believe in God—far simpler not to get involved with any of them.

As a result, however, communities miss out on really valuable contributions that the groups could be making, so we came up with the idea, which was suggested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), of a faith covenant. The covenant sets out ground rules for co-operation between faith groups and local councils to make clear what each should expect of the other, to try to build up confidence on both sides and support them to work together.

The first council to draw faith groups in its area together to sign up to the covenant was Birmingham City Council. It happened at Birmingham central library in December 2014, and it was a good start; Birmingham is the biggest local authority in Europe. Another dozen councils have signed up since then, covering between them about 10% of the UK population. FaithAction, the APPG’s secretariat, is increasingly drawing those councils together to network and learn from one another, together with faith groups in their areas.

However, in the last year, things have moved on to a different level. It came home to me that something unusual was happening on the morning of Good Friday last year. While sitting at home going through emails, I found two from constituents saying, “I don’t have any food. What should I do?” We have all become familiar with referring people to food banks over the past 10 years, but I knew that they would all be shut over the Easter weekend, so I did not know how to answer those constituents. But then I found an email from the Mayor of Newham, Rokhsana Fiaz, saying, “If you come across people without food over the holiday weekend, you should email the vicar of Ascension Church, Royal Docks, before 10 in the morning for a food parcel to be delivered later in the day.” I did not have any better ideas, so I gave it a try, and both my constituents received their food parcels.

My local council has never worked in partnership with faith groups before; something unusual was going on. In my constituency, Bonny Downs Baptist Church, Highway Vineyard Church, Ibrahim Mosque, Manor Park Christian Fellowship and City Chapel have all done a superb job, supported by Newham Council. Similar reports started to come in from elsewhere; the Bishop of Durham told me that a lot of the covid emergency response in his diocese was from faith groups.

Over the summer, with support from the Sir Halley Stewart Trust, the Trussell Trust and the Good Faith partnership, the all-party group commissioned the Faiths and Civil Society Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London to research those council-faith group partnerships. Questionnaires were sent to all 408 UK local authorities and 48% of them filled them in and returned them. Fifty-five in-depth interviews with council leaders and faith-based projects were conducted across 10 local authority areas. Our report, “Keeping the Faith” was published in November, and I thank Professors Chris Baker and Adam Dinham of Goldsmiths and Greg Smith and the research team for all their work. They found a big increase in the number and the depth of partnerships between local authorities and faith groups. More than two thirds of the councils surveyed reported an increase in partnership working with faith groups and 91% described their experience with faith groups as “very positive” or “positive”. It has become clear that what anecdotally appeared to us to be happening when the pandemic began is a reality across the country.

Faith groups and faith-based organisations have been integral to the civil society response to the pandemic, opening up buildings and food banks, running networks, sharing information, befriending, collecting, cooking and delivering food and providing volunteers. Across the UK, nearly 60% of councils have been working with church-based food banks during the pandemic; 24% have been working with mosque-based food banks; 11% have worked with food banks in Gurdwaras, and 10% with food banks in Hindu temples. Suddenly what our all-party group had been promoting had come about.

It has been a very positive experience for councils. One council officer told the researchers:

“My personal admiration for faith groups has gone through the roof, just in terms of their commitment there. We as a local authority didn’t know what we were getting into. And they have got involved with smiles on their faces and they’ve done it professionally.”

The researchers put to the councils a list of characteristics and asked them to characterise their experience of their partnerships “to a great extent”, “to some extent”, “not very much”, “not at all” or “don’t know”. Positive characteristics scored very highly. On

“Adding value because of their longstanding presence in the local community”,

60% of councils said that was the case to a great extent. On

“Improving access to hard to reach groups”,

40% said that that was the case to a great extent and another 39% said that that was the case to some extent.

The researchers also asked about negative aspects that are said to characterise faith groups. Asked about:

“Expressing socially conservative views which sit uneasily with our equalities obligations”,

2% of councils said that that was the case to a great extent. On

“Causing us concern about the possibility of proselytization in the context of partnership working”,

only 1% felt that that was the case. Those old fears of the pitfalls of working with faith groups simply did not materialise last year. Almost all the councils want to build on those new partnerships in future.

The report recommended that the Government appoint a faiths commissioner, working across government, to help faith groups relate to government and to make the fullest contribution that they can. We would like Ministers to encourage nationwide adoption of our faith covenant and of a framework that reflects shared values to foster trust and promote effective collaboration. We would like support from the Minister’s Department to go to each UK local authority, with examples of good faith group partnerships, to build an understanding of what works well in practice. We have proposed a new faiths advisory council, chaired by the new faiths commissioner and attended by Ministers and senior civil servants to look strategically at how faith groups can best help in post-covid Britain.

I would like to thank the House of Commons digital engagement team led by Ben Pearson. Last Friday, it issued a call for evidence ahead of this debate. They had 235 responses reporting how churches, mosques, synagogues, temples and Baha’is have fostered community spirit, provided pastoral support and delivered key services. Canon Hilary Barber of Halifax wrote that the local authority has commissioned faith communities to run food banks and night shelters and is working jointly to promote protecting the NHS and uptake of the vaccine.

Amarjit Singh Atwal, in the east midlands, wrote:

“The community established a food bank”


“rough sleepers. Before the pandemic it was an average of 80 meals a week. During the pandemic this increased to 300 per week. The community also provided PPE to the local health trust.”

Nick, from Christians Against Poverty, wrote of supporting

“families with debt problems over the last year, albeit by telephone rather than face to face…working successfully to get families debt free.”

I pay tribute to John Kirkby, the remarkable founder of Christians Against Poverty, who announced yesterday that he is to step down after 25 years.

I hope the Minister will join me in thanking faith groups for their efforts in supporting communities during the pandemic. I welcome his responses on behalf of his Department to the recommendations in our report—appointing a faith commissioner, promoting the faith covenant, developing and distributing a toolkit, and establishing a faiths advisory council. There is still a widely held view that religious faith is on the way out, irrelevant, maybe harmful to community wellbeing. The reality is that in this decade, and as has become so clear in the past year, it has been the faith groups that, uniquely, have had both the motivation and the resources to step forward and help. Those have not been found anywhere else. We need to learn the lesson from that and enable faith groups and faith-based organisations to make their full contribution in the years ahead.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) on calling this important debate. I welcome the new Minister, who is uniquely qualified to be dealing with the overall subject of housing.

The right hon. Gentleman said that it was thought that faith groups would try to convert people. That certainly has not been the case in my constituency over the course of the pandemic. I am sure the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) will agree that our Sikh temple, the gurdwara, has had what in years past would have been described as a very good war. During the first lockdown, its langar delivered 64,000 free shared meals to individuals and to the local hospice and nursing homes. At the peak, it was doing 1,300 meals a day. When the European lorry drivers were trying to get home for Christmas, it did 800, 1,000 and then 1,500 meals a day. So far in this lockdown, the gurdwara has provided over 25,000 meals, and when the local hospital ran out of scrubs for the staff, it got fabric from Malaysia, had it sewn in Leicester and then distributed the scrubs.

I can certainly attest to that. My father, who served as a president of the Gravesend gurdwara, constantly told me about the amazing work that the gurdwara does. This time round, absolutely incredibly, the Gravesend gurdwara teamed up with Khalsa Aid, a charity based in Slough, to go out and feed thousands of stranded lorry drivers on the M20. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that that amazing concept—working together for the betterment of all—illustrates that faith can be a source of so much good?

I do agree. The hon. Gentleman is being modest. He also played his part in the gurdwara when he lived in Gravesend.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me that, while the Church is filled with imperfect people, of whom I am one, those imperfect people want to do all they can to help others. From schemes such as ringing elderly constituents regularly, delivering shopping or prescriptions, or holding distanced meetings, the love shown by those making up so many denominations, Churches and faith groups has been heartwarming. It reminds us of the scripture text in John chapter 13, verse 35:

“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”.

Indeed, and by thy works shall we know you.

The Gravesend Methodist church, in fact all the churches, found that many of their volunteers disappeared early on, because they were more elderly and often in vulnerable groups. So we saw the Gravesend Methodist church, under Minister Tony Graff, enable Vicki Clarke and Chris Ward to look after the homeless. Every Christian church—that I know of, anyway—handed out food to people, including the City Praise Centre and Terry with his van. I thank all of them.

There are not many MPs here in Parliament at the moment—there are an awful lot of workmen, I notice—but I say again to the right hon. Member for East Ham: thank you for calling this debate, because I know that an enormous number of Members of Parliament who are not here today are extremely grateful to the faith groups for what they have done during the past few months.

I would like to pass on my thanks to the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) for bringing forward this debate. I would also like to pass on my delight at the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes), joining the Front Bench.

The response of all faith groups across my constituency of Bury South to the covid pandemic has been truly humbling. They have selflessly mobilised to ensure that those in need have been cared for, but I want to focus specifically on a group I have been intimately involved with since its inception last year. The Jewish Strategic Group was founded in order to collaborate and co-ordinate the Jewish community’s response to the covid-19 pandemic. It is expertly chaired by Mark Adlestone and co-ordinated by Marc Levy of the Jewish Leadership Council and comprises organisations including the L’Chaim food bank, Hatzola, Misaskim, the Hershel Weiss Centre, Maccabi and many others who selflessly and effectively operate in my constituency.

On a national level, I also pay tribute to the Jewish Leadership Council for the social care assistance fund that has financially supported so many charities not only in my constituency but in the Jewish community across the country. This has included organisations such as the Fed, the Friendship Circle, Jewish Action for Mental Health, Chai Cancer Care and Jewish Women’s Aid. In addition, its emergency community fund has helped to support individuals whose earnings have been affected by the pandemic. Once again, I am grateful that those living in Bury South were able to benefit from this initiative. I am sure that Members across the House will share similar experiences of faith communities coming together to support those in society who may be struggling, and I am delighted to have been afforded this opportunity to highlight their invaluable contribution.

I would like to offer my thanks to the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) for securing this debate and giving us the opportunity to discuss the response of faith groups to the covid outbreak. I would also like to thank him for giving us the opportunity to send colleagues off with a sense of optimism and perhaps renewed faith in humanity. I do not agree with the idea that people think we are odd; I think we do good work collectively. We have had some great contributions, and it is lovely to see my friends here, including the hon. Members for Slough (Mr Dhesi) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I was also delighted to hear the contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway), whose comments about the Sikh community I completely echo and endorse. I am looking forward to calling upon his experience to help and support me in my role as the Minister for homelessness. Just before lockdown occurred, I had the opportunity to visit Israel with my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford)—

Indeed. That visit was made thanks to the Conservative Friends of Israel and it was an opportunity to learn more about that country, the Jewish people and so on. I am not at all surprised by the excellent examples that my hon. Friend gave of their work in this country during the pandemic.

I, too, am glad that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham was able to secure this debate on the response of faith groups to the covid-19 outbreak. In Slough, although Slough Borough Council and the Slough Council For Voluntary Service created an umbrella organisation, the One Slough initiative, which is doing so much for our community, I have been so impressed by the faith groups in particular—our churches, mosques, the Hindu mandir, the Sikh gurdwaras and others—who did much-needed work to prepare and deliver food and much-needed supplies to people’s homes. Does the Minister agree that that illustrates that faith and faith groups can be so inspirational, and that faith is once again the source of so much good in our communities?

Of course, I completely endorse those comments. The pandemic has given us the opportunity to see what good work these groups do, serving people of all faiths and none, regardless of what faith it is.

I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) and the Minister. The religious communities have not only gone above and beyond; they have helped others while missing their own festivals. They deserve much more than we can possibly give with our kind words in the Chamber.

Once again, I completely endorse those comments. I will comment briefly on the festivals that have been missed.

I, like many people, have never needed my faith more than over the previous 11 months. As a Catholic, one of the things I missed most during the first lockdown was going to church. We missed the solace of places like St Peter’s, a beautiful church in Bloxwich. We missed the breathing space we get from praying alone. We missed attending mass as a community. It was particularly hard for all of us over Easter, Passover, Eid, Vaisakhi and many other festivals, and it is with a heavy heart that I realise things still will not be the same this year. However, it is certainly right that places of worship are now open for regular communal worship. I know that the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency of East Ham, which like mine is among the most deprived in the country, has been one of the hardest hit during this crisis and, just like my constituency, East Ham has a strong and diverse faith group.

In Walsall, the difference made by faith groups in response to the pandemic has been nothing short of remarkable. Even when places of worship were closed, faith groups and organisations found new, alternative ways to reach people. When I visited the Guru Nanak gurdwara in Willenhall in May last year—it now seems a long time ago—I incorrectly advertised that it was offering food seven days a week. At that point, it was delivering two days a week, already a huge feat, but soon after my blunder that became the reality. It decided to step up to seven days a week, with delivery three days a week and collection four days a week. Free food available to absolutely anyone, irrespective of their faith—fantastic. I also had the opportunity to join members of the Muslim community packing and delivering food boxes for vulnerable people. I thank Pound 4 Pound boxing club for organising that event.

Those are a few examples from my constituency, but in panning out from Walsall North, I do not know where to begin. Throughout this exceptionally challenging time, faith groups have played a vital role in providing leadership for many and in bringing communities and generations together. Across the way, our neighbours at the Guru Nanak gurdwara in Wolverhampton hosted a covid-19 testing pilot in November, supporting the NHS to identify undiagnosed cases to protect those most at risk from the virus. In January, imams in mosques across the UK delivered sermons at Friday prayers to address concerns surrounding covid vaccinations and reassure worshippers that it was safe to receive them.

During the pandemic, churches, mosques, gurdwaras and temples have opened their doors wide to provide essential support for the most vulnerable people in their communities, and not just those of faith. This year we have seen with our own eyes how faith groups have an ability to mobilise resources that some other civil society actors simply do not. The APPG’s report “Keeping their Faith” rightly picked that up. It is fair to say that that has surprised some people in the last few months. I was not surprised, perhaps because in my previous role as deputy chief executive of YMCA in Birmingham I saw at first hand the transformative power of inclusive faith-based organisations in people’s lives.

To turn to the APPG’s report, the statistics are impressive. While council capacity for engagement has reduced during the pandemic due to building closures and furloughed staff, 67% of local authorities have reported an increase in partnership working with faith groups since the start of the pandemic. Like the right hon. Member for East Ham, I noticed the striking statistic that 91% of local authorities described their experience of partnerships with faith groups as very positive or positive. The report shines a bright light on what can be achieved locally between faith groups and local government as this pandemic continues, but more than that, it is timely. It comes after the report from my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) that delves into levelling up our communities and will complement the important review that is under way on how Government can engage with faith communities, which is being undertaken by the independent adviser, Colin Bloom.

The APPG has shown that faith communities and local and national Government can work together effectively. My colleague Lord Greenhalgh, our Faith Minister, has seen the impact of that partnership at the national level through the places of worship taskforce and the regular faith leadership roundtables that he hosts. Collectively, the Government, alongside faith leaders, were able to advise thousands of places of worship on how to keep congregants safe while still facilitating significant elements of faith practice.

We have achieved a great deal in the past year under incredibly difficult circumstances. I am in full agreement, as is the Faith Minister, that we should capitalise on these positive outcomes. We do not want to lose all this good work and the momentum that has been created. It is a great shame that potentially the lack of understanding of what could be collectively achieved has held some councils back from working with faith groups. While it has taken a pandemic for new relationships to grow, I, for one, will be building on the incredible work that has happened in my own constituency.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to a number of recommendations, including the faith covenant published by the APPG in 2014 to encourage collaboration between faith groups and local authorities, engendered to build mutual understanding between them. Such initiatives can help to encourage collaborations that bring about huge benefits for communities. I encourage all councils to look at the faith covenant and take up the challenge to work constructively with faith groups.

Each report that I have mentioned is seeking to find ways in which government, local and national, can better utilise, engage and work alongside faith communities—an aim we fully support. I know that the right hon. Gentleman has been pushing this cause for years, looking for a step change in how government, local and central, can work together with faith groups and learn from each other to inform policy decisions and effect real change locally. This report and the actions it highlights have opened doors and changed perceptions. Together with the review by my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes and Colin Bloom’s report, we will have the beginnings of a framework for how new, meaningful partnerships can be brought together.

At this time, when our NHS is rolling out the country’s biggest ever public health programmes, faith groups are again at the forefront of that effort. It is the diligence and care that allowed communal worship to restart last year that now allows places of worship to transform into places where large-scale vaccination can take place for the benefit of all of us. Everyone involved in this debate knows that effective vaccines are the best way to protect people from coronavirus, saving thousands of lives and helping us to forge a path out of the pandemic. I thank faith communities for all that they are doing on the vaccine, but also challenge them to keep doing more.

Once again, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for inviting me to speak at such a critical time about such critical work. Faith is a vital part of our identities and it motivates us to play a key part in our communities. The reports we have discussed point us to look ahead and establish new relationships with faith groups. I look forward to Colin Bloom’s report this year as an important further contribution to that debate.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.