This article is part of Public Spirit series on Faith and Social Action.
Working under Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the Faith Engagement team within the Department for Communities and Local Government (CLG) is the main point of contact between the Coalition Government and faith-based organisations. In this article, Warwick Hawkins, who heads the team, introduces the work of the Faith Engagement team and outlines some of the Government’s recent efforts to include religious organisations in public life.
Having worked in Government for 17 years on religion policy, off and on, I am pleased to have a chance to give readers of this exciting new site a bit of an insight into the Coalition Government’s approach to faith.
Basically the policy is three-fold: understanding and defending the value of religious belief to individuals and society; promoting and celebrating the practical contribution that faith groups make to neighbourhoods and to British life; and working with communities and colleagues in other Departments to tackle religious hate crime and support its victims. The Government can already count a number of achievements in all three areas.
On the ‘value of faith’ narrative, Baroness Warsi has been appointed as the first ever Cabinet Minister with a brief to defend religious interests. From the outset of the formation of the Coalition, she set out the government’s stall on faith, declaring that it would unashamedly ‘do God’. True to those words, we’ve taken an unprecedented number of steps to demonstrate that Britain is a place where people can practice their faith freely.
“The faith engagement team acts as a source of expertise, facilitating productive contacts between faith representatives and civil servants on areas as diverse as airport security and Sharia Councils.”
My Department has legislated to ensure Councils can hold prayers as part of formal business, and our politicians have spoken out in favour of the right of employees to express their faith at work, including through the wearing of religious clothing and symbols. And the Department for Education has enabled religious ethos schools to flourish and distributed copies of the King James Bible to all state schools to mark its 400th anniversary.
We continue to ensure that Hospital, Prison and Armed Forces chaplaincies are well resourced; faith groups are involved in green projects being developed by the Department for Energy and Climate Change; Churches are involved in rehabilitation programmes for offenders with the Ministry of Justice… and there are many, many other examples.
Baroness Warsi doubles up as a Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister, where she has put freedom of religion or belief at the heart of her agenda. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has led the work of the Hajj Taskforce to combat fraudulent travel operators and regularly liaises with faith leaders on foreign policy issues, and the Department for International Development enjoys closing working relationships with faith based aid agencies.
Close personal relationships with different faith communities are maintained through Ministerial visits and meetings; messages are sent to mark religious holidays and important anniversaries of places of worship and religious traditions; and the Prime Minister hosts well attended receptions at 10 Downing Street to mark key faith festivals. My own team acts as a source of expertise for colleagues across Whitehall, facilitating productive contacts between faith representatives and civil servants on policy areas as diverse as airport security, meat contamination and Sharia Councils.
In relation to faith communities’ practical contributions to the public good, my department’s Near Neighbours collaboration with the Church of England has, to date, supported some 500 local projects that are bringing together people of different faiths to build understanding and improve neighbourhoods in four geographical areas of high deprivation, as well as supporting clergy, youth and community activist training programmes.
Last year hundreds of faith-based volunteering projects, including a number of flagship multi faith projects; took place under our ‘A Year of Service’ programme to mark the Diamond Jubilee; its successor programme ‘Together in Service’ will be launched soon. We have helped faith-led projects to overcome bureaucratic obstacles and we have worked with different faith communities to enable them to show solidarity in the face of the EDL and other extremist voices. We have funded the excellent work of the Inter Faith Network for the UK and the Faith based Regeneration Network, and we support national Inter Faith Week every November.
“These days it is rarely the case that civil servants and local commissioning officials are reluctant to work with faith groups for fear that public funds may be used for proselytisation or that services might not be delivered equally.”
Finally, the Government is committed to tackling internet, school and campus hate crime, for instance by the measures included in the Hate Crime Action Plan. Cross-Government working groups are addressing anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hatred and we are encouraging increased reporting of hate crime. We have set up a working group on anti-Muslim hatred and we supported an organisation, Tell MAMA, which records attacks and supports victims of anti-Muslim hatred.
We continue to support the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and projects such as the Anne Frank Trust and You Exhibition and British Heroes of the Holocaust, and even supported the UK’s first ever Srebrenica Memorial Day, so that young people and others can continue to learn lessons from history. As well as this, we work with INFORM to ensure that the effects of cults and new religious movements on society are better understood, and we are working with the Government Equalities Office to develop educational schemes to address prejudice rooted in Caste.
While there is much good news to report, it is probably true that pockets of poor ‘religious literacy’ still exist in central Government and in some local authorities. These days it is rarely the case that civil servants and local commissioning officials are reluctant to work with faith groups for fear that public funds may be used for proselytisation or that services might not be delivered equally. Rather, as the ‘Christians in Parliament’ All-Party Group has suggested in its recent Faith in the Community report, officials often want to work with faith groups but are not sure how to go about it. My team is helping to address this, including by hosting conferences later this year and in early 2014.
I am sometimes asked, particularly by Americans who are aghast at the rather muddled picture of religion-State separation in this country, why on earth a Government employee should be involved in policy on faith. I’m not sure I have a definitive answer, but I can point to all the good things that this Government is doing to optimise the constructive role of faith in the public square and to protect the rights of people of faith – some of which I have summarised here. And I do so with an element of pride that I have personally been involved in them.
Warwick Hawkins heads the Faith Engagement team at the Department for Communities and Local Government. The team leads on faith communities engagement across Government and sponsors programmes to encourage inter faith dialogue and cooperation.
The image of Eric Pickles is included courtesy of the Department for Communities and Local Government.