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CORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 902 -iv
House of COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE the
Public Administration Committee
Smaller Government: Bigger Society?
Thursday 30 June 2011
Andrew Copson, Lord jonathan Sacks, rt rev Tim Stevens and Charles Wookey
Evidence heard in Public Questions 339 - 403
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Taken before the Public Administration Select Committee
on Thursday 30 June 2011
Mr Bernard Jenkin (Chair)
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Andrew Copson, Chief Executive, British Humanist Association, Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi, Rt Rev Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester, and Charles Wookey, Assistant General Secretary, Secretariat, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, gave evidence.
Chair: May I welcome our witnesses to this session of evidence of the Public Administration Select Committee on the Big Society? I am very grateful that you are all with us this morning. We are looking at the nature of the Big Society, and particularly the relationship with the various faiths and faith groups in our society. I will ask Mr Halfon to start.
Q339 Robert Halfon: Good morning. There is an article in the Wall Street Journal today that suggests Britain is one of the most irreligious nations in the Western world, and it cites a number of surveys. Would you agree with that?
Chair: Who would like to start? Bishop Tim. I should declare an interest: you married my brother.
Bishop Tim Stevens: Quite how that affects the proceedings I do not know, but thank you. I have not read the Wall Street Journal article, but I think there are many commentators who would take a similar view, and depending on how you measure these things there is certainly a case for saying that we are in the vanguard of secularism in Western Europe generally, and you could argue that within Western Europe the United Kingdom has particular indicators of secularism.
I shall want to argue that, in spite of that, in the case of the Church of England the indicators remain strong. Compared with almost every other membership organisation, the Church of England retains a very large degree of attachment of various kinds by the people of England to its presence, work and vision. I think that the measure of secularism is one that is not clearly defined.
I imagine all of us would want to say that, in terms of the positioning of Government, Government would want to be equidistant between people of faith and people of no faith, and within the faith communities between the different faiths and the different denominations within faiths. In that sense, that is properly a vision of a secular society. So it depends on whether you are talking about attendance at-
Q340 Robert Halfon: There was a reason for my question, and I welcome answers from all of you, but the article was talking not just about church attendance but about those who believe in God, and it is very, very low. Can I just take very briefly the views of the rest of the panel on that before I come on to my second question?
Andrew Copson: It is true that on all measures in terms of religious belief, belonging and attendance the UK has one of the lowest percentages of religiosity of any country in the world. In fact, for the first year last year the British Social Attitude Survey found that 51% of people describe themselves as not having any religion-as being nonreligious. That was the first time it had made it over the 50% mark, and that certainly is now the case. Correspondingly the number of religious people has fallen, I think Christians now down to 43%. That is certainly true.
I think what is remarkable in contrast, for example, with the United States of America is how little difference that makes to people’s civic participation and volunteering. For example, in the United States of America you find there is a large proportion of religious people, and also religious people are disproportionately involved in community and voluntary activity, whereas in the United Kingdom the citizenship survey of 2009, I think it was, found that 60% of Christians were involved in voluntary activity, and so were 60% of nonreligious people. Although it is true that the UK is a very nonreligious country, by and large, what is striking about the UK is that unlike other countries it remains extremely civically engaged amongst the nonreligious population.
Lord Sacks: Speaking from our own community, we have certainly seen over recent years quite the opposite: an increasing degree of synagogue attendance, involvement in Jewish activities of all kinds-educational, religious, social and welfare-and increasing demand for Jewish schools, and for ongoing adult and family education. Maybe you will find that in other minority groups as well.
There is no doubt that, in terms of statistics, the number of believers, the amount of church attendance and so on in Britain is extraordinarily low in comparison with the United States. But it is a base note of the culture: the fact that a royal wedding is in Westminster Abbey seems to make sense to a lot of people; the fact that we gather together in St Paul’s Cathedral for moments of collective grief, for instance, like after the Tsunami or after 7/7 or 9/11; and the increasing demand across the board for faith schools. It may be that religion in Britain expresses itself in slightly different ways than it does in the United States, but I certainly feel that there is a kind of Christian note that gives gravitas to occasions when we want to express our celebration or our grief.
Charles Wookey: I obviously agree with all of that. Just in two parts, my answer would be that, in terms of the Catholic community in the UK, there are about 6.5 million Catholics, of whom about 2.5 million go to church at least once a month still. Our church attendance pattern has changed, as it has in the Church of England as well. But that is still quite a substantial number of people, and I think that many people would describe themselves as spiritual rather than religious.
I think one of the things that has been going on in our culture is a disassociation between the institutional forms that religion has taken and people’s sense of search for meaning, and although in some measures it is perfectly true to describe the country as very secular, religion is all over the newspapers all the time now. Religion is a topic of discussion, and the questioning and the underlying values of questioning that religious faith traditions bring to society is as lively and well received as ever. It seems to me in some ways religion has become more topical and more a subject of engagement, even if that is not reflected in statements about patterns of belief. I also think that we are in a key moment of transition.
The other thing I would say in terms of the Catholic community-which is as true now as it was in generations past-in this country is it has acted as a form of integration in immigrant communities. There is a lot of church attendance that has come through Poles and Latin Americans in particular who have come to this country to live.
Q341 Robert Halfon: Thank you. The reason for my question is that you, the Chief Rabbi, have said that faith communities are essential for the Big Society-and I agree with that-but if there is a decline in religion in our country does that mean that it is going to be very hard for the Big Society to work, because of the lack of faith and the decline in those who have a belief in religion?
Lord Sacks: I believe the American evidence. I am happy to repeat it, but I have set it out in writing. Would you like me to repeat it?
Robert Halfon: Please.
Lord Sacks: Robert Putnam, as you know, who has made a speciality of the study of social capital and first blew the whistle with his phrase "bowling alone" to say that we were losing social capital, has come up in his book published last year, American Grace, with this finding that on almost all forms of civic engagement, church attendance, synagogue attendance is the best predictor of your likelihood to do a whole series of things: give money to charity, whether the cause is religious or secular; do voluntary work for a charity; give money to a homeless person; give excess change back to a shop assistant; donate blood; help a neighbour with housework; spend time with someone who is depressed; allow another driver to cut in front of you; and offer a seat to a stranger or help someone find a job. They are also more likely to get involved in local civic and neighbourhood groups, and so on and so forth.
Obviously the concern that all of us must have is what happens to this citizenship, community, voluntary work and giving if religion turns out to be a minority phenomenon, because obviously we can do a certain amount but we cannot do it all. What happens to those who do not belong in communities? That is why I welcome a moment like this where we talk about a common good that transcends a narrowly religious base, but to which religious communities can contribute.
Andrew Copson: If I may, we know what happens when religiosity is absent, because, for example, I have just said that 60% of Christian people volunteer in the United Kingdom but 60% of nonreligious do as well. The United Kingdom is not the United States. The United States is a different society, where there are perhaps fewer opportunities for social belonging outside of religious settings than there are in other countries, or for all sorts of other reasons. The importance of religious belonging in social capital and in the bridging work that goes on in society in America is not mirrored in the UK. In the UK there is no difference between nonreligious and religious people’s charitable, civic or voluntary engagement-none at all-apart from that there are some lower levels of engagement among minority religions than there are with the nonreligious. For example, 60% of Christians and 60% of nonreligious people volunteering, as I said, in the Citizenship survey; only 45% of Muslims. There are differences between religions in civic engagement in this country, but there is absolutely no evidence at all that not being religious puts you at any disadvantage-or being religious puts you at any advantage-in terms of your participation and the value of your individual contribution to society in the UK at all.
Q342 Chair: But would you not say that that reflects the fact that we are a JudeoChristian culture, and therefore the values of religion infuse our culture whether people are participating actively in religious observance or not?
Andrew Copson: I would not say that. There is, obviously, a sociological and cultural case that can be made saying we have a certain history within certain patterns of belief and this has left a legacy, a sort of moral capital argument-that the moral capital was banked by our ancestors in the terms of a JudeoChristian practice and we are living off it. But I do not think that is true at all. I think that important values of civic participation predate the various Christian institutions even in Europe, that they are shared around the world, that they are more likely to be human values, because we are social animals, of cooperation and participation in a shared society. I think that is a firmer foundation on which to build them than separate religious beliefs, in which no one person can assent to all the propositions on offer. I think for a cohesive approach you have to recognise that those values are very largely human values, that most people treat most other people well most of the time and that we all have engagement within that shared universal human value, rather than bringing it from our distinctive perspective-philosophical in my case or religious in the case of my colleagues here.
Q343 Robert Halfon: Do you agree that the central proposition of the Big Society is that social capital is as important as economic capital, and if so can you define what you mean by social capital, particularly in a religious context?
Bishop Tim Stevens: Perhaps if I could pick that up, Andrew has made a number of assertions that the habit of volunteering and active citizenship is as manifest amongst those without faith as it is amongst those with faith. That is an assertion he has made clearly; it is not borne out by the statistics that I have seen, so I am not sure where we go with that assertion.
If I could give an example from my own city of Leicester, which outside London is perhaps the most religiously diverse city in the country, where on a Friday, a Saturday and a Sunday somewhere between 30% and 40% of the population of the city are in synagogues, mosques, temples, churches, gurdwaras. When it comes to religion there is a great deal of it about in Leicester. We did a piece of research four or five years ago that demonstrated that at that time there were about 415 faith-based voluntary initiatives of one kind or another reaching a whole variety of hard-to-reach parts of the community: elderly AfricanCaribbeans detached from their roots in the West Indies being reached by some of the blackled churches; unemployed, homeless asylum seekers; a whole range of people of different human sexualities and so on all connecting to faithbased groups reaching out to them.
I think that it is very clear in a city like Leicester, population of about 350,000 people, that the relationships between the faiths-built up over many years, established through the Faith Leaders’ Forum and the Council of Faiths, in which we have stood together over and over again in public when the city comes under pressure: at 9/11, at the outbreak of the Iraq War, the 7/7 bombings in London, the bombings of Gaza-all these things in a global world resonate through local faith communities in a city like mine. We have worked so hard to ensure that the carefully constructed relationships between us are not fractured by these events, and I think that we have been able to show that by working together we are able to create a culture of service to the whole community.
I think that is a practical vision of the social capital that you were discussing, and much of it is described and worked out in a document produced by the Church of England five years ago that was produced to mark the 20th anniversary of Faith in the City. This was a document entitled Faithful Cities, and it developed the idea not just of social capital but of faithful capital: that is to say the relationships, the shared values and the actions that flow from it that have built up between faith communities in our urban areas. I think it is one of the clearest and most illuminating accounts of what we believe we are trying to do.
Charles Wookey: I have a couple of observations. I think, again, the point that Andrew made, I would question the evidence for this. When Robert Putnam came to London to speak about his book, which the Chief Rabbi has referred to, he spoke about research that he has done in the UK-which is as yet unpublished-that he said reaches the same conclusions as the research he did in the States; that is to say that those who are involved in religiously motivated networks are much more likely to volunteer than others, and not just volunteer for religious things but to volunteer for secular things as well. Interestingly this seems to apply across faiths, but he said the research is very robust and applies equally in this country. I think we will just have to see when that is published, but it would seem to be quite at odds with the research that Andrew was citing in support of that. Similarly, there is research that has been done here by the Northwest Regional Development Agency on the role of faithbased voluntary organisations in that part of the country over the last 10 years, which is very strong and has been replicated elsewhere as well, which again just reinforces the point Bishop Tim was making about the importance of faith groups and their contribution to building social capital and volunteering.
Chair: But I can see Mr Copson twitching there.
Andrew Copson: It would be wrong to characterise my position as saying that religious groups do not do anything that is valid, important or worthwhile. What I was contesting was the idea that they are disproportionately involved over nonreligious people in this country. As for "assertions", they are not mere assertions. The sources are the Citizenship Survey of 2009, the Citizenship Survey of 2001, the NCVO report Faith and Voluntary Action, the Government report Helping Out, all of which, I think, are mentioned in our own submission.
Q344 Chair: But I do not think that any of the religions are claiming a monopoly on goodness.
Andrew Copson: The question was whether or not diminution of religious belief would somehow lead to a decline in the participation that the Big Society envisaged. I am saying that it would not and it has not because religious groups are not disproportionately the providers of that sort of service: civic and voluntary engagement. That is the point I am making.
Bishop Tim Stevens: I am simply going to pick up that point. If, for example, there were such a diminution as to remove the Church of England’s contribution to the Big Society from the public square, you subtract at a stroke some 19,000 trained deployed ministers, both clergy and lay readers; the availability of some 16,000 churches, church halls and community hubs; the engagement with the provision of public education; and the deployment now of the largest number of youth workers of any organisation in the country. The annual expenditure by congregations on their clergy, the maintenance of their church buildings and their outreach work is £700 million a year, £0.7 billion. The total turnover of the Church of England is a billion pounds.
Q345 Chair: This is just the Church of England?
Bishop Tim Stevens: This is just the Church of England. This is the order of magnitude, so I think to assert that if you take that out of the equation it has no impact on the Big Society is not-
Chair: I do not think that is quite what Mr Copson was saying.
Q346 Robert Halfon: Could I just ask you all to define social capital?
Lord Sacks: Let me just address the question of what social capital is. Einstein once said, "Education is what you are left with after you have forgotten everything you were taught in school", so I define social capital as what you are left with when you subtract the state and the market-all transactions that have to do with power or with wealth. All of those things subtract, and what you are left with is social capital. In the continuing and utterly fascinating work of evolutionary psychologist Martin Nowak, his new book, Supercooperators, is very interesting-Darwin already raised this-in that somehow or other what is necessary for species or human groups to survive are two habits: one of competition; the other of cooperation. It turns out that we are hardwired to cooperate as well as to compete. The important thing in any society is to have institutions that foster the habits of cooperation, not just those that are institutionalised or mediated forms of competition: the state or the market.
There is absolutely no doubt that historically that is what religious communities did, and already in the 19th century people like Durkheim were asking, "What will we do when the world goes secular?" They very carefully wrote and said-and they were not wrong-that that role might be performed by trade unions, by friendly societies and so on. There is no doubt in the 19th century, one of the high points of social capital in Britain, not all of it was being done by religious groups. It is important that, just as a humanist recognises the contribution of religious groups, we as religious figures recognise and salute the contribution of nonreligious groups. None of this would seek to say that we are any better than any other.
But this I know, and it may help us square this problem with statistics, that in almost everything we do in the Jewish community, the Jewish community tries to give disproportionately back to society and to the community. It operates its own stunningly effective organisations, like Jewish Care, Norwood Ravenswood, like all those things. We give a lot of money, and not every one of the people who is involved in that is necessarily going to a synagogue twice a day. They may only come twice a year. If you look at the bare statistics it might look as though the Jewish community, like the rest of Britain, were quite secular. But there is no doubt whatsoever that those groups exist and are driven by religious values that are sustained by religious education and practice, even if it is not that often, and even if you do not always answer in the most pious way to questionnaires. I think the religious influence from our community is very profound, but it is not always reflected in overt practice.
Q347 Chair: Thank you very much. We must move on to the more nuts and bolts issues. It has just been remarked to me that the words "Big Society" have not been mentioned yet, and that is what we are really about. Speaking practically, the Government has made quite a thing about involving faith groups. What contact has each of you had with the Government in terms of consultation and dialogue about the Big Society question?
Bishop Tim Stevens: I think the Church of England has had a lot of contact on this. There were conversations, I think, before the election with frontbenchers who subsequently formed the Coalition Government. I know there have been conversations at Lambeth Palace, some of which I have been present at, where the Archbishops have talked with key Ministers around Big Society, localism and welfare reform, which are connected issues. I have had conversations with frontbenchers in the Lords about this following the debate in the Lords that I led on in the summer of last year, and I think officers are also in regular contact with Government at various levels.
Q348 Chair: And you feel that this is constructive?
Bishop Tim Stevens: I think it is not only constructive but necessary and vital. I think that access to these conversations, a readiness to participate in the shaping of this vision, as it were as a critical friend, not being reduced simply to the role of deliverer of public services but participant in the shaping of the vision, is something that is both proper for the Church of England and something we want to do.
Charles Wookey: Archbishop Nichols, together with the Chief Rabbi and Archbishop Rowan met David Cameron some time ago, and this was an issue of conversation that they had after the election. My colleague Helen O’Brien, who is the Chief Executive of a charity called Caritas Social Action Network, which brings together the Catholic welfare charities, has met and talked to Greg Clark, and they have also been at official-level contacts that we have had with the Cabinet Office and with the DCLG as well.
Lord Sacks: I have been having this conversation for a long time because these are difficult concepts and difficult to get clear about. I wrote two of the texts on this: one was called Politics of Hope in 1997, and then in 2007 The Home We Build Together-society as the home we build together. It has been an important conversation with the political leaders-the Prime Minister, the Ministers and the leading civil servants, in this case Steve Hilton-on the Big Society and so on. It has been tremendously important because it is a delicate issue, and I think we all recognise this: what is the relationship between the Government and the voluntary sector? What is the relationship between the Government and faith communities? It is difficult, it is sensitive, you should not be too close, you should not be too distant. I think we see ourselves as contributing members and hence as voices in a conversation in which we say we are committed to the common good, some of which can be achieved by the state and other bits of which are best achieved by society.
Q349 Chair: Mr Copson, have you been included in this dialogue?
Andrew Copson: No, we have not. We certainly have not been sought out for any particular contribution. We met Andrew Stunell to discuss some of the human rights and equality implications of contracting out public services, but for a positive contribution perhaps from our celebrants or local groups or our view generally on how nonreligious people could best contribute to this new vision of the Big Society, we have not been included in any sort of discussion.
Q350 Chair: Does your particular group have a big volunteering footprint? Obviously not as large as the Church of England.
Andrew Copson: Obviously not as large as the Church of England, no. We do train people, for example, to do nonreligious ceremonies, such as funerals, which fulfil a very big need in the community; we think they are probably attended by about half a million people each year. We do have numbers of people who are hospital visitors in the same way that religious people might have a chaplain and so on and so forth. Our local groups, of course, of which there are 90 and which do work in their own local communities, are all run by volunteers, so not to the same level, obviously, as the Church of England, though they have had a bit of a start on us.
Q351 Chair: But you would welcome further dialogue?
Andrew Copson: We certainly would.
Lord Sacks: I think it is important to note that last July at Lambeth Palace we came together as leaders of all the faiths, including the Hindus, the Muslims, the Sikhs, the Jains, the Zoroastrians, the Buddhists and the Bahá'í, on this subject of the Big Society, because we felt there is a problem. Let’s face it: the power of religions to create communities can be uniting for those within but divisive vis-à-vis the ones without. We recognise that social capital is partly bonding capital that can turn you into a group, but is partly bridging capital that connects you to other groups. We wanted to make sure that Big Society involved the bridging as well as the bonding capital, so we have come together right across the faiths.
Q352 Paul Flynn: Bishop Tim, you said in the past that "we are dealing with some serious politicians who have used the opposition years to think creatively about a better society and what it might look like." As the Big Society was launched a year ago, and has since been relaunched, rerelaunched and rererelaunched, and each time, fewer people understand it and fewer people support it-the person who was appointed as the midwife to bring it to life, Lord Wei, has fled the scene-do you not now think that this is an idea whose time has passed?
Bishop Tim Stevens: I do not think it is an idea whose time has passed, because I think it has resonances with a vision for society that is profoundly Christian. That is not to say it is the same thing, but it has resonances with it; societies in which people do value relationships, in which they do seek to cooperate, in which they do build institutions that stand between the individual and the state, because it is within those kinds of institutions, within those kinds of relationships, that human beings flourish. If the Big Society is drawing attention to the need for them to be strengthened, for the sometimes inhibiting hand of officialdom to be lifted from them, for people to be empowered and equipped to make changes in their communities that serve what the Chief Rabbi has been talking about, the common good, then I think we are still wanting to be part of the conversation about how to do this. But I think we recognise that the rhetoric will not in itself deliver it, and we also recognise that trying to manage a change to something that is more like this kind of society at a time of rapid and dramatic deficit reduction is a very difficult thing to pull off. I think that may have been why the Archbishop referred to the language as somewhat stale in his recent New Statesman editorial.
Q353 Paul Flynn: Have you observed that recent Prime Ministers are addicted to three word solutions, such as The Third Way, Back to Basics, the Cones Hotline, and these are soon forgotten? These are seen by many people as a political gimmick, and you guys are being used in this, but it is done to achieve a political end, which is to take £4 billion from charities and give a sweetener of £100 million, and in order to fill that gap, the Big Society is being used, as many of your fellow priests have said, in order to disguise a savage and unjustified cut in public expenditure and a change of responsibility from Government to voluntary services.
Bishop Tim Stevens: If it is intended as a disguise it is a completely inadequate one. I do not think it deceives anybody at all. We had a debate on this at the General Synod in the autumn of last year, and the Church Urban Fund, which is a national Church of England fund for funding a whole variety of work in our most deprived urban communities, had done some work with Church Action on Poverty monitoring the consequence of the deficit reduction programme for a large part of the voluntary sector. We are all aware that the consequence is pretty dire. I am a former chair of the Children’s Society, which I chaired for six years, and I am aware that they are now reducing the scale of operations and the number of paid personnel looking after the most vulnerable children in the country. About 150 professionals are having to leave the Children’s Society. We know that this is the present context, but I do not think the present context necessarily means that the rhetoric is entirely empty.
Q354 Paul Flynn: The Archbishop of Canterbury has said, "The widespread suspicion that this has been done for opportunistic or money saving reasons allows many to dismiss what there is of a programme for Big Society initiatives; even the term has fast become painfully stale." Isn’t this true? Isn’t it a fact that the idea has been supported by few and ridiculed by many?
Bishop Tim Stevens: No, I do not think that is reasonable. We all recognise that we have to recover a sense of empowered local communities. We have to recover a sense of compensating for what I would call a civic deficit. We no longer have institutions that create the civic character that make people want to participate and engage. I think there are real questions amongst a generation of young people, about whether getting actively involved can make a lot of difference. All those things need to be addressed if the Big Society can do it.
My suspicion, if I might just say so, is I think this debate is going on within Government, and I think there are those within Government who would see it simply as a device for shrinking the scale of the state. I think there are other enlightened members of the Government who have a much larger vision for it than that.
Q355 Paul Flynn: I think we all agree with the nobility of the aims and the outcomes if they are achievable, but do you think there is a disincentive for people who are already good Samaritans-for all kinds of reasons, because they hope for eternal life or for the reasons that the humanist would advocate-who would be put off, and say, "I am not part of some political gimmick; I am not volunteering in order to please the Government or taking part in a stunt to disguise savage cuts and the destruction of many public services and the undermining of charities; I am not going to have anything to do with it"? Don’t you think there is a strong element now, after a year of preparing the Big Society, that it cannot be sold to us, it is not going to be accepted by the mass of people, and you in the Churches are being used cynically by Government to do their dirty work?
Bishop Tim Stevens: I think we in the Churches need to be alert to the dangers and the possible devices that might be used to turn Churches into utilitarian deliverers of services, that we become, as it were, the means to a political end, whereas I think we see the pursuit of our religion as an end in itself-it has meaning in itself. Volunteering, serving others, reaching out to the poor, is not simply a device; it is the way in which human beings discover who we truly are. It is the means to human flourishing. That is what we want to hold as a vision before people and why we want to continue to participate in this conversation.
Q356 Chair: The Archbishop of Canterbury is not advocating that even he should withdraw from this dialogue, is he?
Bishop Tim Stevens: Not at all. In fact he gave a very interesting and substantial lecture at King’s College London on the subject, which I commend to the Committee, where he discussed a whole range of issues about the Big Society and talked about the new politics-that we need a new politics that is not simply an endless seesaw between individualism and statism but something richer than that, and that he saw opportunities in the Big Society for engaging with those things. But he also, I think, made the point, if I could just touch on this, that if the Big Society is a real vision for a renewed community, and if it includes addressing the inappropriate pooling of power in certain parts of the state, to the disadvantage of local communities, then those principles have to be applied in the private sector as much as in the public sector, where the aggregation of unaccountable power that disadvantages local communities also needs to be addressed. That is a wider question but one that we might want to come on to.
Chair: Can I bring in one or two of the other witnesses? Lord Sacks.
Lord Sacks: Can I draw a distinction between a social reality and the label a particular politician cares to put on it? We know labels have to be three words long, but at the end of a day, that is a vehicle for attracting people’s attention. There is a substantive reality here that transcends party politics. My own engagement in this extended very much over the previous three Governments in addition to the current one. The reality is that the attempt to build a free society without a strong civil society will fail, and to believe otherwise is to believe that you can create freedom by process rather than by substance. Civil society is essential to the health of a polity, but civil society in and of itself transcends party politics. That is why there will always be cynicism, whichever Government uses whichever phrase, when it wants to say-whether because of budgetary deficits, political ideology or whatever, or just an ultimate truth-there are some things the Government cannot do but must assist others to do.
Charles Wookey: I agree with that. Our bishops, when they met in November, thinking about the Big Society said, "Many yearn for a richer community life, a society characterised by stronger social bonds and a greater acceptance of mutual responsibilities. But it demands a conversion of mind and heart that cannot be achieved by Government or policy initiative alone. If it is to succeed, this project must be taken beyond party politics to become a common endeavour owned by society as a whole." I think that is the line that we have been taking since, which is similar, in many ways, to the view that Bishop Tim and the Chief Rabbi have expressed, which is to resist, on the one hand, a kind of cynical approach to this altogether-and certainly also to be coopted by any kind of party political process in all of this-but at the same time, to hold with integrity to where we come from and to name and try to support the value shift that is morally needed in our country. Many, many people of all faiths and none would say that. The faith communities have a contribution to make working with politicians of all parties to do this.
We had a seminar which brought together members of different parties at a conference in which we asked 200 people in the room, including a lot of our agencies who are working and experiencing expenditure cuts at the moment, "How many of you think that this is just a cynical ploy?" The vast majority did not, which is interesting. They are suffering at the moment, but they see that underneath this there is a real moral question. That is not to say that some people are not seeking to use it in a manipulative way-of course that may well be right-but that is also not to say that we should not allow our responses to raise and focus on a really important moral question that our society does well to look at.
Q357 Paul Flynn: One of the expressions that Rowan Williams resurrected was "the creation of a community of communities", and this comes from the syndicalists, guild socialists, nothing at all to do with any religious movement at all, and this whole idea of creating the community of communities is not one that is necessarily religious based. Isn’t it significant that Rowan Williams was suggesting that what is needed in an enterprise of this kind, during this period of opposition when these serious people were thinking about this, was to gain a broader base of support for it rather than produce it as a political idea and advance it as a way of disguising some unpleasant decisions by Governments.
Charles Wookey: The very important role that religious leaders can and are playing in this debate at the moment is to articulate a vision about what a good society looks like.
Q358 Paul Flynn: But you would be doing that anyway.
Charles Wookey: Yes, but in this particular context, it is right that they should do that in relation to the political programme that this is proposing, because this is a live issue in a way it was not before. There are many people in our society who say we have had 20 years in which we have been told we are just consumers, not citizens. We see all kinds of social problems that previous ways of addressing them have clearly failed to meet. There have to be other ways in which we look together at how we meet those best. Part of that is looking at what it means to be a human being, what it means to have human flourishing and what the conditions are for that, and how we relate together as people.
Q359 Paul Flynn: But it is not going to help you if your religious work is being advertised as being sponsored by the Conservative Party or part of a Government endeavour to ensure they stay in power.
Charles Wookey: It would not be if that were the case. Where we would be with that is a willingness to work in partnership and a strong resistance to being either coopted or instrumentalised.
Paul Flynn: I am grateful to you.
Chair: Mr Copson, you have a brief comment?
Andrew Copson: I just want to say that to the extent the phrase "Big Society" is intended to describe a situation that in part already exists and has done for a long time of having a healthy civil society that will encourage people to engage in it, that is fine. But I think that some of the initiatives that fall under the label of Big Society risk disrupting that healthy civil society.
Q360 Chair: Such as?
Andrew Copson: Some of the concerns we have had, for example, include obviously unsurprisingly the emphasis that has been laid on religious groups. We think that can disrupt the work of other, what we would see as more inclusive secular charities. I might come on to it later, but one of the examples we have used in the last few months would be the transfer of the contract for trafficked women’s services from the secular charity Eaves Housing to the Salvation Army, which we see as a very negative development because it restricts employment and services in various different ways. But also I think that Mr Flynn’s question is correct. There is risk in attaching short-term flighty policy initiative names to things that people are doing anyway because they might get tarnished in the long term.
Q361 Chair: It is interesting that a secular organisation should call itself after a biblical figure.
Andrew Copson: Who is that? Eaves?
Andrew Copson: I think it refers to the eaves of a house.
Chair: Oh, I beg your pardon. I just have religious hearing.
Andrew Copson: It is very common.
Q362 Robert Halfon: In contrast to my friend Mr Flynn, I take a different perspective of this. Is not the reason that the Big Society terminology has come about nothing to do with the deficit at all but is the reaction to social breakdown and to say that the state, as the Chief Rabbi said, does not necessarily have all the answers to this, but we have faced, over a number of years, atomisation of communities and individualisation, and the Big Society is an answer to that to try to bring people together to rebuild social capital?
Lord Sacks: This whole debate began in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and it has just gone through a series of different names. In America, if you were on the right wing, you called it civil society; if you were on the left wing, you called it communitarianism. It was really the same thing, because civil society is not party political society. I think therefore it is part of a long-term problem of atomisation, individualism and so on, and I think we would pretty much agree: number one, that we would refuse to be identified with one particular party, let alone one particular political programme; and number two, we would resist any suggestion that religious groups hold a monopoly or a privileged position here, because we equally respect the contribution of secular charities. We see no competition here; on the contrary, the more the better.
Q363 Alun Cairns : Mr Wookey, you are representing Archbishop Nichols today. Do you want to give us something of the background of why the Archbishop could not be here himself?
Charles Wookey: He was not able to make the date, I am afraid, and Archbishop Smith asked me to represent the Bishops’ Conference. I work as Assistant General Secretary there on policy work. Also, I have been very involved in plans we have to grow and develop the Caritas Network of agencies. He felt it was appropriate and that I would be helpful to you.
Q364 Alun Cairns : That is helpful, and the answers you have given have been really helpful to the evidence session of the Committee. Is it anything to do with the custom that the Archbishop or the Bishop does not give evidence at a Select Committee? That is what I was trying to get at.
Charles Wookey: I think that is probably right as well. I need to check whether in the past a Catholic Bishop has ever given evidence to a Select Committee. I do not know that they have, but equally I am not entirely sure that they have not. But it has not been his practice.
Q365 Alun Cairns : Okay. I am trying to work it out, because on the one hand the Archbishop has been quite vocal in the media and press, and I will refer to The Sunday Telegraph article shortly, but then has not given evidence directly to the Committee. If we are trying to grapple with this issue to come up with recommendations to take it forward, was that a consideration?
Charles Wookey: He is absolutely willing. The Church is keen to assist the Committee in its work-that is why I am here-and, if there are things that you raise this morning that you particularly wish the Archbishop to answer, I am sure he will be happy to write to you and clarify any questions you might have specifically for him.
Q366 Alun Cairns : Thank you. The Archbishop, in his article in The Sunday Telegraph on 17 April said that the Big Society project was at a critical stage, and predicted that the next few months could determine its success. That was in April. We are not far from the three months that he mentioned. Has enough happened in that period, or what needs to happen within the three months in order to save the project?
Charles Wookey: He gave another speech at the annual conference of our Caritas Network in June, following a speech that David Cameron made on 23 May, in which he spelt out in more detail than he had before some of the policy implications as the Government now sees it for the Big Society. I think from our point of view, Archbishop Nichols felt that there was a lot to engage with there.
Q367 Alun Cairns : Do you want to underline what he felt was relevant from the Prime Minister’s speech?
Charles Wookey: The particular things that I would pick out that he drew attention to in his speech were, first of all, the importance of a critical engagement with the reform of public services and how that is done; that there is a real risk-and there are two separate agendas, but they come together, the cuts and the Big Society agenda-in the way expenditure cuts are implemented, if it is simply the withdrawal of the state from services that were previously provided in the hope that other actors in civil society would pick things up and do more volunteering. That is a real risk. He was expressing a widespread fear that people have that the agenda of the Big Society in growing civil society will be frustrated by the way in which necessary expenditure cuts are implemented. If you want to grow volunteers, sometimes you have to have the network of professionals at the heart of a small charity, for instance. If the funding for that professional core goes, you lose the capacity to grow the volunteers with them. That was one aspect of what he said, which in a sense was a critical point.
More positively, I think the Prime Minister’s speech drew particular attention to, if you like, particular elements of civil society-community, family, faith and other aspects-and mentioned also marriage. The Archbishop in his speech picked that particular aspect of things up as well, because a longstanding view of his-as it would be of other religious leaders as well-is that the importance of the family and family stability and marriage is a key part of what will make for the growth of civil society and stable society in the future, and this and family breakdown are issues that need attention. Those are a couple of things that he picked up from the latest speech of the Prime Minister. But I think his view is one of continuing critical friendship to this process, of not wanting to be coopted, not wanting to be anybody’s patsy when it comes to this, but at the same time not wanting to connive in a cynical rejection of it just because it is something that comes from one party, but hopefully something that can be broadly accepted by all parties, whatever it is called.
Q368 Alun Cairns : Thank you. There are two issues that you shared with us then: one was professionals at the heart of a charity that give it the capacity in order to grow; and then there was marriage and the family, but I want to focus on the first for the moment. Can you give me a good example of that happening and possibly a bad example as well of where it went wrong in spite of having professionals at the heart of the charity, or is there not one that you are familiar with?
Charles Wookey: I would need to come back to you with examples of both, but I am very happy to do that.
Alun Cairns : That would be helpful.
Q369 Paul Flynn: Could you confirm the Pontius Pilate remark by the Archbishop, who said that "a Government could not simply cut expenditure, wash its hands of expenditure and expect that the slack will be taken up by greater voluntary activity"? Is that not the true situation, and the Archbishop’s view?
Charles Wookey: Yes; he put it in a slightly more nuanced way, if I may say so in his speech.
Paul Flynn: That is what he said; it is a direct quote.
Charles Wookey: His view is that you cannot create capacity simply by cutting expenditure, and that in situations where expenditure cuts have to be made these have to be done with very careful discrimination in order to try to help build capacity for change, and overridingly with a particular concern for those who are most vulnerable and most likely to suffer as a result of the expenditure cuts, and it is attention to that that is a key aspect of the extent to which we have a truly civil society.
Q370 Paul Flynn: Cutting £4 billion from charities is creating a vacuum that has to be filled.
Charles Wookey: It makes life very difficult in the way it is done, certainly, for a lot of charities, but equally some of the charities that have lost Government contracts are finding new ways of working, as indeed they did before they ever got those contracts in the first place. It is very difficult, but it is not irrevocable in some situations. If you talk to the Catholic agencies, this is what they said. They are finding it very difficult; some are finding it extremely hard.
Q371 Paul Flynn: We have not been overwhelmed with charities demanding less money.
Charles Wookey: No, but how they are funded: they need to find alternative sources of funding and they often need to work in consortia and in different ways. But that is not to say that there is not a real issue with cuts; of course there is.
Q372 Chair: But is the Archbishop not entitled to sound this warning?
Charles Wookey: Absolutely.
Q373 Chair: But has any of the Panel met any member of the Government that would disagree with what the Archbishop said? Is any member of the Government trying to wash their hands of the consequences of public expenditure constraint?
Bishop Tim Stevens: I think there are signals from some parts of Government that they have not yet taken to heart the key point that Charles made: that the way in which public funding is withdrawn, the speed at which it is withdrawn, the consequences for the most vulnerable and the negative effects on those charities and voluntary organisations that train and mobilise volunteers has not always been taken full account of. Because I was involved with the Children’s Society I know more about that than others, but it is not only the professionals that they train and deploy; it is the many volunteers as well. If the amount of money available to national charities of that kind steeply diminishes it contracts the whole network of people involved with it. Ditto for Age Concern, Citizens Advice Bureau and so on; you could tell the same story in relation to a number of major national organisations.
Chair: That is something this Committee has taken evidence on already.
Q374 Alun Cairns: I want to come back to where I started, in that the Archbishop gave us a warning of three months, and Mr Wookey mentioned that the Prime Minister responded a month later with a speech in which there were various points that resonated and seemed to respond, so are we past the cliff top edge? Has the Prime Minister done enough to satisfy you that by the end of the three months we are okay, or is it that he has just bought himself another three months thereafter?
Charles Wookey: My answer to that would be I think what Archbishop Nichols said in his speech in June still holds, which is that there is an important moral principle here that requires our continuing engagement and there are serious issues around the way in which cuts are potentially being implemented. I do not think he would come down on one side or the other; he would say this is work in progress and it is important not to lose the moral agenda here. Underneath this, there is a really important question about how the future of our society is going to be shaped, and simply to give up on that because this thing is being swallowed up by other agendas would be a shame. I think he feels there is a good question that has been asked: yes of course there are hard politics in the heart of how you are going to implement expenditure cuts in this context and how you grow-if you are trying to do this-a Big Society and what it requires of other actors, and the limits of what any state can do in any circumstances. But I do not think he would say, "No, that is it-it is finished."
Q375 Alun Cairns : He talked about the need for a "cutting edge" in that article; do you want to maybe explain a bit more about what was meant by cutting edge and are we getting closer to it, and what sort of thing would you like to see as that cutting edge?
Charles Wookey: I think what he meant there was specific policy prescriptions, which were set out much more fully in that speech by the Prime Minister on 23 May than they had been earlier; it brought together both areas of growing civic society and also the reform of public services. It was a more comprehensive setting out. Certainly that was the Archbishop’s reaction when he read that. He felt that there was much more to engage with, which is what he said in his speech in June.
Q376 Alun Cairns : If it is work in progress, and that speech defined it much better to the Archbishop and to society in general, what further changes would the Catholic Church like to see in trying to bring the Big Society more to life?
Charles Wookey: I think one of the issues that is there is how Government articulates a vision for a good society. I think this does require further work, and it is something that is as yet still unclear, I think.
Q377 Chair: Is it for a Government, for a political leader, to make that articulation, or is that something that should come from within society more broadly?
Charles Wookey: It is something that should come from society as a whole.
Bishop Tim Stevens: I have been listening to this conversation and the three-month precipice as if somehow the Big Society was all a boundaried agenda being managed on a timescale, and there comes a point where it is either done or not. I do not think any of us come with those assumptions at all. This has to be a long-term intergenerational programme that is embedded and rooted in values in what I called the development of civic character and touches on a whole range of Government policies. I think that policies that have the effect of increasing the fragmentation and atomisation of society, whether they are economic, social or other-educational as well-all bear on the Big Society picture.
I would say, and I think others in the Church of England have said, and the point was made in the General Synod debate, and, if I remember rightly, in the House of Lords debate, that the question of widening inequalities in society absolutely bears upon the realisation of the vision. I am not talking about crude, redistributive taxation programmes but serious attention to how the widening gap between the poorest of the poor and those who take a great deal of reward for what they do directly affects how people understand relationships, the capacity to cooperate and their investment in civil society. We all know this to be the case. Those issues are as central to what we are talking about as how the voluntary sector is managed and funded.
Chair: We need to move on.
Q378 Paul Flynn: Taking the point that you made about bringing communities together, this Committee went on a shameless junket to Birmingham, I think it was. I did not take part in it myself because I live a quiet monastic life. But I understand that they were very impressed by an organisation that was dealing with Christian and Muslim members of society and behaving in a way that was entirely ecumenical. I am not certain whether this is just a worthwhile organisation that has had a Big Society label slapped on it or whether it is partly the inspiration for the Big Society. I believe it has only been going for a relatively short length of time. But if the Big Society does stagger on in some way, would it be worthwhile-if the wreckage is not already at the bottom of the cliff, as has been suggested-that it should have aims like that of bringing groups together from various societies, including groups from humanist organisations, rather than see it advance within the narrow confines of each denomination?
Bishop Tim Stevens: Absolutely. I think there is a worked example of that being developed as we speak, because the Department for Communities and Local Government has funded a programme called Near Neighbours. This involves providing to the Church of England in four localities, in Bradford, Birmingham, Leicester and London, some seed corn money for street-level initiatives to build relationships between people from different cultural or faith communities in order to create what we used to call social cohesion. It is a simple practical example, the amounts of money are very modest, but I think it is an interesting pilot to see whether this liberates people’s imagination and creativity not at the town hall, nor necessarily in the churches, but between neighbours, in the streets and localities in our major diverse cities. I think that is an interesting initiative. We will have to see how it works.
Q379 Paul Flynn: Mr Copson, I think you believe that the Government is focusing more on religious groups rather than individuals or organisations like yours?
Andrew Copson: I think that is right. We thought it a risk, not just for this Government but with the previous Government as well, to focus on people as if they are, first and foremost, members of groups rather than individuals, and I think the risks of a communitarian approach are that you can build in divisions for the future. You can also reinforce existing internal hierarchy-hierarchy as in inequalities-rather than treating individual people as equal members of a wider society.
However, having said that, I do not know about the project that the Bishop referred to just now, but taking people within a street, using a locality as the unit of cohesion, rather than faith community or ethnic group, sounds like a potentially much healthier way forward. My problem is that having an ethnographic introduction of, "Here is a school group of Muslims; let’s go and meet a school group of white people who you might call Christian but most of them probably are not, but let’s just do it for the convenience of the funding or programme," or whatever, I think has a potential to be very unhealthy and very divisive. I am not saying it is not worth doing in some circumstances where some people genuinely do have a primary identification of themselves according to their religion. But I think in most cases it is better for people to work, as it were, side by side in shared enterprises as individuals in their locality, bringing their different backgrounds to it because they cannot distance themselves from them, rather than making a fetish of the difference somehow and bringing groups together in that way.
Lord Sacks: I wonder if I could just tell the history, because it is an interesting history. The Birmingham group came together immediately in the wake of 9/11. Our local rabbi-sadly no longer alive, the late Rabbi Leonard Tann of Singers Hill in Birmingham-went to the Imam of the local mosque and said, "This terrible thing has happened; I think you are going to find yourself in a difficult place, and I want you to know that we in the Jewish community are standing here beside you." That friendship, which then extended to all the faith leaders in Birmingham and made it a model of what they call the faithful city, just happened: two individuals recognising that there might be divisive tensions between groups and just bringing those groups together. It was incredibly powerful.
I so agree with the principle, number one, it has to be side-by-side-I call this in The Home We Build Together sidebyside as against facetoface interfaith dialogue, which can be very elitist and remote from street level-and number two it has to be street level, because all the groups in a neighbourhood will likely face the same problems. It is just better to face them together.
Q380 Chair: But shouldn’t humanist groups be standing shoulder to shoulder with religious groups.
Andrew Copson: I do not see why not. In areas where our local groups are invited to participate in civic activities that bring people of different beliefs together they often do so. That is perfectly fine. But I think you have to recognise that if you organise such initiatives around people who have an interest in either religion or nonreligious philosophies then you are going to be bringing people together from a very small pool. It is not going to touch most of the lives of most people in this country, who do not engage in that sort of activity, either religious or philosophical, on any sort of regular basis. I think you have to go deeper. That is why the idea of focusing on streets, localities and communities is a very appealing one. I have a suspicion that that is probably a lot more expensive than funding smaller initiatives that bring groups together.
Q381 Chair: But if we are harnessing faith groups, do we have to be alive to the fact that some people in society find people with strong faiths rather divisive, and therefore that can be rather excluding?
Andrew Copson: I think that is a really important point to remember. It is better to have interfaith initiatives than to have interreligious strife and tension, but a lot of people-I think it was 73% in the last Social Attitudes Survey-said their opinion was religious beliefs cause division.
Lord Sacks: Could I say why, because I feel very strongly about this? The whole time up and down Britain religious groups are getting together across the boundaries between faiths.
Q382 Chair: There are some that won’t.
Lord Sacks: Some of them won’t, but it is those that do that put contravening pressure on those that do not. It is our complete failure ever to get public cognisance of this in the media that means that the images that prevail of religion in Britain and Europe are divisive images.
Q383 Chair: How should policymakers, on an equitable basis, discriminate or make a distinction between the benign, inclusive faith groups and those faith groups-I will not name them, but we can all think of them-that are exclusive, divisive, possibly even extreme?
Lord Sacks: By ceasing to give publicity, attention and heroic status to the extremists. By reminding us that Britain is a country in which relationships between the faiths, as a whole, are probably better than anywhere else in the world, and this is based on local neighbourhood friendships. I think we are in a massive media distortion of what is a very minority phenomenon. It is a very dangerous minority phenomenon, but by making it look as if that is the public face of religion, we are damaging the great and good work done across faiths.
Bishop Tim Stevens: I would agree entirely.
Q384 Chair: But you recognise this is an important question.
Bishop Tim Stevens: It is a very important question; indeed it is a fundamental question for us. I think the first thing that I would say is that it is important for politicians not to problematise religions: not to see them as intrinsically problematic-that as it were a public square evacuated of faith would be a great deal easier to produce policy, cohesion and harmony within. There is absolutely no evidence from history that that is the case, quite the contrary.
I think, if you were to take a case study, some of us might feel that the previous Government’s Prevent programme, in relation to some of its initiatives about religious extremism in the wake of 9/11, had the effect of problematising some of the Muslim communities in ways that were counterproductive and had unintended consequences. We, I think, welcome the rhetoric of religions as part of the answer, not part of the problem, as a general approach.
I think the second thing to say is that it is very important that policymakers engage in religious literacy; that is to say there is a responsibility on those who are making policy to understand the differences between the religions, the particular emphases that some would bring rather than others, and that that is, as it were, a professional competence that should be required of people making policy in the public square in a religiously plural society.
Chair: We will take the point you are bound to make about the curriculum as read at this point, because I think it is an important issue but it is not a matter for this Committee.
Bishop Tim Stevens: The third point I was just going to make very briefly is that I think that what we need is the freedom for religious communities to be providers of public services, but not place upon them a requirement to provide public services necessarily for everybody. Within a complex and variegated public space there will be a number of different providers. All will be provided for, but not every provider will provide for everybody.
Q385 Chair: Moving on to this very practical business of what faith groups and indeed other belief groups can provide, Bishop Tim, you have said that it is very important to be realistic "when considering what services you are able to deliver". What did you mean by being realistic?
Bishop Tim Stevens: I mean that when I was speaking earlier about the number of ministers, clergy and lay, and the number of churches in the Church of England, if you aggregate them they come to a very substantial critical mass of resource and activity. But they cannot be an alternative to public service provision across the piece. They cannot deliver the professionalism, they cannot deliver the resources, they cannot deliver the standards, they cannot deliver the consistency, and they should not be expected to. But what they can do is add value, they can mobilise volunteers, they can support initiatives, and in localities they can do things that are small scale and transformational. That is what, I think, politicians need to be alert to. What is it appropriate to expect a parish church in the city centre to do; or a village church in a community that has lost its post office that might open up its facilities to provide one; or a local police centre; or an outreach centre to completely destitute asylum seekers; or a programme working with young people not in employment, education or training? There are a whole variety of categories here, where volunteers-well mobilised, well led, well resourced and well managed, sometimes by paid professionals-can have a transformational effect but not in a way that simply expects the Church to behave like a local authority or a Government department.
Q386 Paul Flynn: One of the difficulties there is what came up with the Catholic adoption agency that found themselves in conflict with antidiscrimination laws that came in. They lost their case and they wanted to continue to discriminate in spite of the fact it was the law of the land they should not. But isn’t this slightly to reintroduce a provision that was subject to the law of the land into small societies who are still exercising their own private prejudices? This is not a satisfactory replacement for what we have now.
Bishop Tim Stevens: This is really an issue for Charles more than me, but if I can just say, so I do not just leave it to him-
Q387 Paul Flynn: The bishop involved, Arthur Roche, said that the message Catholics would have if the charity were forced to close is that the Church’s confidence in the Big Society programme could crumble-that if they cannot continue being what many people would regard as prejudiced and discriminatory, they are not going to take part in the Big Society.
Charles Wookey: Let me make two comments about the adoption agency issue and then a more general one. On the adoption agency question, which was a very difficult one, you had a particular moral issue that is quite specific to the very delicate area of adoption, and the issue there was the wish of the Catholic adoption agencies to continue to operate in accordance with their own ethos and understanding of what they felt was better for adopted children, versus the requirements of the new equality legislation that their services should be open to all. The argument was had and, as you know, the law is as it is now.
The Leeds case, which is currently still going through, raises a legal issue, and the legal issue is whether it is within the scope of the current Equality Act 2010 for an agency to have enshrined in its objects sufficient clarity to enable it to continue to do its work and then be able to do that within the scope of the Equality Act, and that is a question that the Charity Commission and the High Court will look at. The argument that Bishop Roche is making is that he thinks the Equality Act does in fact allow a charity to continue to operate in accordance with its ethos if the benefits it seeks to provide are spelt out more explicitly in its trustees. That is a legal question. That is what I would say about the adoption agencies thing.
I think more generally though, and I have obviously asked for the purposes of coming this morning, what are the other Catholic agencies that do other work and are under contract with public services? They are things like running care homes, family centres, prisoner centres, homeless projects, youth projects. In pretty well all of them there is no issue between the services that the Church seeks to provide through these Catholic agencies now in those areas and the requirements of equality legislation. Indeed, if there were, then the Church or the agency concerned simply would not bid for it. Going back to Bishop Tim’s point, if society is moving in this area towards greater choice and diversity in the provision of public services, where religious charities and others wish to seek to bid for those services in consortia with others, they should be free to do that and focus on particular areas, provided we ensure that the provision of public services overall does ensure that the needs of everybody are met.
Q388 Paul Flynn: Would you support choice and diversity if it came to a group who did not believe in blood transfusions? Should they be embraced by the Big Society as well?
Charles Wookey: What do you mean by-
Paul Flynn: Well, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I believe, forbid their adherents to-
Charles Wookey: I am not entirely sure of the relevance of that.
Q389 Paul Flynn: I mean, one goes through a whole group of religious people who have ideas that are unacceptable to society generally, and the difficulty is when you take away a provision of service that is provided nationally to be provided by groups, some of them sensible, some of them not on our side of sanity at all. What you are saying about the Catholic Church being allowed to discriminate on homophobic lines could be claimed by other groups who are doing something that is far more dangerous.
Charles Wookey: Just to come back to you on that, I think the dispute about the adoption agencies was around a deep moral question around the parenting of adopted children, and I think that that is a vexed issue in society and it was probably debated at the time. The law only changed in the last 10 years to allow nonmarried couples to adopt in the first place. You are talking about a very rapid social change, and it is difficult to argue that the view that the Church wants to continue doing something that had been required by law until 10 years before that Act was passed is somehow beyond the pale and it should be required to change. I think there is a genuine issue there in society that is open to debate.
What I will also say is that I do not think any religious charity ought to be able to claim some kind of trump or exemption from the requirements of law just because it is religious. There should be no particular privilege. So if a religious charity does something to which society says, "We really do not think this is on," I do not think it should be able to get away with doing it just because it is religious. Having said that, I think that the other side is also true. If you have a religious charity, take a Catholic charity that provides a care home, for instance, that wants to be quite explicit about its ethos in the way that it runs that care home and to provide religious symbols and to have a chapel and have regular services, very often, in fact, if you look at people with Alzheimer’s-of whom, as you know, there are over 700,000 in this country-their religious affiliation in childhood and through adulthood is a very important part of their care as older people, and for a home to be very explicit about that and to provide those symbols can be a very important and enriching part of life.
If we say that public services have to be provided in some kind of quasineutrality, which often conceals a hidden ideology that says religion should not play any part of it, then you lose something. Society, I think, gains a lot if we recognise that there is real scope for different agencies and Churches to contribute their part, but I would, having said that, also completely agree with Bishop Tim that, as far as the Catholic Church is concerned, we do not want to raise expectations about what religious communities can suddenly do in replacing any kind of state provision. They can help, but they are only a very small part.
Q390 Chair: Mr Copson, you fear what you call "the balkanisation of public services".
Andrew Copson: We have said that, yes.
Q391 Chair: Should we not just treat this as part of the natural friction in a society where there are different views and perspectives, and we just have to manage that friction rather than turn it into an absolute obstacle?
Andrew Copson: I would agree with that. I think that is what our position is. I think there is no doubt that universal, secularly provided public services are a good way of achieving a greater cohesive feeling in society. I think the contracting out and the fragmentation of public services it leads to, especially in the future, puts that at risk.
Q392 Chair: So you believe in a single monopoly?
Andrew Copson: No, not necessarily a monopoly.
Q393 Chair: Well, a cultural monopoly.
Andrew Copson: Not necessarily a monopoly provider.
Q394 Chair: A secular monopoly.
Andrew Copson: Where secular means not somehow excluding religious people but of an inclusive sort.
Q395 Chair: So it is alright for a Christian to be a nurse if she does not wear a religious symbol.
Andrew Copson: That is a long way from the question of public service provision.
Q396 Chair: But it comes to that, doesn’t it?
Andrew Copson: Not particularly in the provision of public services. They are harder edged issues than those. When it comes to religious groups and the contracting out of public services, the problems for us lie in the fact that religious groups have exemptions from various equality laws that secular providers of a contracted-out public service do not have. Take for example the housing of trafficked women contract that I referred to earlier. Eaves Housing, when it was providing that service under contract to the state, was bound by the same sort of employment law, the same sort of service provision law as any other provider, so they could not discriminate on religious grounds in their employment, for example. The Salvation Army, when they took over that contract, were able to discriminate on religious grounds in their employment.
Q397 Chair: But is there not a flipside to what you are saying, which is a compulsory secularisation of all services becomes a tyranny of its own? It is not compatible with a free society.
Andrew Copson: If you think the current system that has existed for the last few decades has constituted a tyranny, then that could be true, but what I am talking about is the reverse of the current situation.
Q398 Chair: I do not agree with the position taken by the Catholic adoption agencies-I personally do not agree with that-but I find it quite hard to justify compelling people to stop what they are doing altogether or compelling them to do something they profoundly disagree with. We do not make surgeons carry out abortions if they are against abortions.
Andrew Copson: Of course not; I think the whole question of conscientious objection and the right to refuse to do this, that or the other in a particular profession is a total separate one, though, from this one, and I do not see how it is related to the Big Society. As far as the Big Society affects this, what we see as an element to the Big Society is an acceleration or an increase of the contracting out of services that are now or were once provided in a way that was open to all people, to be provided by organisations that first of all can legally discriminate in employment against people with different or with nonreligious beliefs, as the Salvation Army have said they are going to do in the case of that contract, and the Government has said they are happy to see happen, in a letter to us from Lynne Featherstone. They are not bound by the same nondiscrimination provisions in the Equality Act that bind secular providers, when it comes to the provision of services, so people who have a problem do not have recourse to justice in the same way that other people do. They may be bound by a contract, but not necessarily by the law, and there is no protection for people who might feel that they are coming under unreasonable pressure of a proselytising sort either. This is different from any supplementary services that might be provided by religious organisations. I am talking about the contracting out of large-scale public services to religious organisations and their problems.
Q399 Chair: We are going to have to close this session very shortly, but before we end, do any of our Panel want to add anything to that particular discussion?
Lord Sacks: I take Andrew’s point, I really do, that there has to be a situation in which everyone has reasonable access to services, and so thinking that one can hand large amounts of them over to religious organisations would disenfranchise a part of the population, and I would agree with that concern. At the same time, I share with Bishop Tim and with Charles a real concern that the attempt to impose the current prevailing template of equality and antidiscrimination on religious organisations is an erosion of religious liberty that scares me very greatly, because we are beginning to move back to where we came in in the 17th century, with a whole lot of people on the Mayflower and the Arabella leaving England to find religious liberty elsewhere. A good sound ecological balance leaves space between on the one hand the individual, on the other hand the state, for a variety of civil groupings, some of which are religious, and they have to have the freedom to live according to their conscience, except when that massively conflicts with things like the right to life if somebody needs a blood transfusion.
Q400 Chair: Mr Copson, very briefly; I think we have aired this.
Andrew Copson: Equality and human rights was not the flag under which the pilgrims on the Mayflower had been oppressed in England. It was a religious intolerance, which we risk reimporting into public services if we split them up now.
Lord Sacks: It is all balance.
Q401 Chair: But a humanist absolutism would be just as tyrannical, in my view.
Andrew Copson: Of course, which is why it is not desirable.
Q402 Paul Flynn: Let a thousand prejudices bloom.
Lord Sacks: I think we may be breaking out into agreement.
Q403 Chair: Maybe that is the price of freedom. Do any of the panel want to add anything else about this session about the Big Society? Any closing thoughts?
Bishop Tim Stevens: I just want to underline, I think, the point that you have made, Chairman. I think the Church of England wants to play its part in this, it wants to serve the best of the vision, and the last thing it wants to do is disenfranchise people by large-scale contractual relationships that deliver Government programmes and exclude others. That is not part of the vision we want to have any part in at all.
Lord Sacks: Can I just say thank you for allowing us to be part of the conversation?
Chair: That is very generous. We are very grateful for your time. It has been a fascinating session. Thank you very much indeed.