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11 Mar 2009 : Column 105WH—continued

When I asked the Library to look at the extent of Christian involvement in the charitable sector, I found out that there are more than 15,000 Christian charities in this country, which is a fantastic number. I also found out that more people do unpaid work for Church organisations than for any other organisation. Indeed,
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8 per cent. of all adults undertake voluntary work for Church organisations, while 16 per cent. of adults belong to a religious or Church organisation. The report, “Charity Market Monitor”, has estimated that 18 per cent. of all income that was raised by charities in 2006-07 was raised by faith-based charities. That was the second-highest proportion for a generic group, behind health charities. Those facts are worth putting on the record.

I am sure that the Minister is aware that his Department partly sponsored the excellent report, “Faith in Wales: Counting for Communities”. There is one Welsh MP present—the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams); perhaps he has read the report and will have a chance to express the view from Wales later. The report, which has been endorsed by the Welsh Assembly First Minister, who is from the Labour party, celebrated the fact that the faith communities in Wales contribute an estimated £102 million to the economy. If that figure is extrapolated to apply to the UK as a whole, the total is £2 billion.

In work on poverty and social exclusion, the UK Christian community has an effect beyond these shores, as well as within them. During the huge protests in Edinburgh before the G8 summit at Gleneagles, a significant proportion of the people who went up there and challenged the Government—indeed, all politicians—on those issues were from different Churches in the Christian community. There will also have been people of all faiths and of none, but a significant proportion of the people there were Christians. I know that the Government welcomed that pressure, as all politicians welcome pressure on issues that we want to progress. That is significant.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): The hon. Gentleman is making a very interesting speech and I strongly agree with what he is saying. I agree particularly with what he has just said, because it is a departure from times past, when quite senior people in the Conservative party said that the Church must keep out of politics, as though it should have nothing prophetic to say about the issues on which he has rightly commented. I welcome his remarks.

Andrew Selous: I am grateful to right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I think that there will always be a tension between faiths and Governments of all parties. They are not supposed always to have a perfect relationship, but perhaps that is a reflection of the Church’s prophetic role, as he put it. I have no difficulty with that; we are grown up, and we can accept differences of opinion.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): There is also a view, is there not, that politicians should keep out of the Church and out of religion? Was it not rather depressing when the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said that he could not talk about religion when he was the Prime Minister for fear of being called a nutter? Is that view changing? The current Prime Minister mentioned the story of the good Samaritan in his speech to Congress, and Delia Smith is doing a blog on the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development website. Does my hon. Friend think that politicians should speak out and talk about their faith in a natural way, as he is doing?

Andrew Selous: I understand where my hon. Friend is coming from. I think that he, like me, heard the Bishop of London speak yesterday, when he advocated that
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politicians show a degree of reticence about speaking a great deal about their personal inspiration. We lead by example and we should be open about these matters, but that tradition of British reticence has something in it.

Let me return to my central point, which is the contribution of the Christian community to the marginalised and the most disadvantaged. I wonder whether other Members do the same as I do when constituents come to see me on a Friday, having found that their benefit application has not been processed. I say that with the best will in the world and I know that Jobcentre Plus staff work hard, but a family in that position might have no food in the house for the whole weekend. That was a real problem to me when I was a new MP, because I did not know what to do, until someone helpfully pointed out that Salvation Army centres often have food to give out in such circumstances. I am extremely lucky to have in my constituency Salvation Army centres in both Leighton Buzzard and Dunstable, so I know what I can do to help my constituents. A colleague told me today that the Vineyard church does the same in her constituency.

I praise the work of food banks up and down the country. I have had contact with the Trussell Trust, from Salisbury, which also operates in Swindon. It is trying to set up a network of food banks across the country and it happens to be run by a Christian organisation. That sort of work is tremendously valuable. We all accept that there are limits to what the state can or even should do, but that sort of partnership working is critical if we are talking about families who might otherwise go without food on a Friday night.

On work with the homeless, last September I spent some time with the Watford New Hope Trust, an organisation that involves a group of Christians from many different churches in Watford doing the most fantastic work. In the field of criminal justice, I wonder if the Minister is aware of the excellent street pastors initiative? I do not know whether it operates in his constituency, but it is starting to set up in mine. It has some support from the Home Office and I saw in a written answer that it received a small grant. That organisation works closely with police forces across the country.

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing such an important debate. On the subject of street pastors, he might be aware that yesterday there was a reception for co-ordinators from the initiative. There were 90 representatives of areas from Aberdeen to the Isle of Wight, Chelmsford to Bristol, and all the areas in between. Street pastors is a growing initiative that practises what most people only preach. It shows compassion in action by reaching out to the community, and it produces wonderful results in reducing and helping to drive down crime rates.

Andrew Selous: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I want to move on to exactly that point now. That initiative sounds excellent and I hope that street pastors help the police, but what are the results? We now have results from across the country on the operation of street pastors. I understand that within
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the first 13 weeks of the operation of street pastors in Lewisham, there was a 30 per cent. reduction in street crime. There was a 95 per cent. reduction in street crime in Camberwell—I am not quite sure if something of extra significance happened there that did not happen elsewhere—and a 74 per cent. reduction in Peckham. In Lincoln, during the first six months of the operation of street pastors, there was a 7.5 per cent. reduction in street crime, and in Cardiff, on Fridays when the street pastors operated there was a 13 per cent. fall in violent crime related to drunkenness.

That initiative is doing the most fantastic work. If there is less crime, police resources are freed up and our communities are better places in which to live. I hope that police forces will co-operate with the initiative, because street pastors have a valuable partnership-working role. My hon. Friend and I are pleased to be able to pay tribute to them. As I have said, a group from that initiative is, I hope, about to be set up in my constituency.

In relation to charities, I would like to give some praise to the Cabinet Office because it has done some good work with the faith sector and Christian organisations. The problem that some of the 15,000 Christian charities I mentioned a moment ago find is that when they work at local authority level with local authority officers, who generally do extremely good work, there is sometimes a lack of understanding of where such charities are coming from and their motivation.

The case of a charity in south London that works with single mothers has come to my attention. The charity works with single mothers of all faiths and of no faith. It operates absolutely no discrimination in terms of the services that it provides, but its website contained something about the Christian basis of what it was doing. It therefore received a letter of rejection in response to its application for funds to extend its work with the local authority. The letter stated:

That was the reason for the charity being cut out of any form of funding for its excellent work.

In another case, a woman who was a very successful foster parent to older children was told:

She was therefore not allowed to continue. The last example I shall give is that of a small charity in Norfolk that does useful work in relation to prostitution in that county. Again, that charity felt that it had been discriminated against and has stated that it feels such discrimination comes from

I draw the Minister’s attention to a remark that one of his ministerial colleagues—the Financial Secretary to the Treasury—made during a speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research on 29 January 2009. He said that there is

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I agree with the sentiments expressed by the hon. Gentleman. Is it not ironic that many of the faith-based organisations that operate with no sense of discrimination with regard to the background and viewpoints of the people whom they support are themselves discriminated against? That makes it more difficult for them to do the cross-party and no-party faith activities that, as he said, clearly add so much value to civil life.

Andrew Selous: I am delighted to hear that contribution from the hon. Gentleman. I completely agree with what he says. Being a charitable-minded fellow, I think that such discrimination often comes from ignorance. People do not set out to be difficult and to stop the excellent charitable voluntary work of the Christian community across the country. Such discrimination is sometimes just the result of ignorance, which is why I pin great hopes on what the Minister will say today. I hope that he can give some gentle reassurance to many of our excellent colleagues in local government and elsewhere that there is nothing to fear from such organisations and that they simply add greatly to the quality of life of the communities that we in the House are privileged to serve.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): At the start of the hon. Gentleman’s speech, he talked about Christians and faith groups helping the marginalised in society. However, the current situation means that Christians themselves and members of other faith groups are being marginalised. On his point about the relationship between those working in faith-based charitable organisations and the public sector, does he agree that the case of Caroline Petrie, who was a nurse suspended for offering to pray for a patient, was appalling? That sort of utter overreaction gives an indication of the values of the public sector and its oversensitivity to these matters.

Andrew Selous: I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned that. There was also the case of the school receptionist and the debate on what children can say to each other as part of education. There are a number of questions that need to be dealt with. I think that the case he has mentioned had a happy resolution. I do not know the details of what happened in the school, but I hope that an equally sensible solution can be found. I thank him for making that important point.

I shall wind up by making one final point. I was talking to the vicar of a large, growing church in London that does incredible work in all the communities that it serves. He had been dealing with his local authority in relation to a planning application for the church premises. The officer from the local council had asked, “What is the community benefit from enlarging part of your church here?” The vicar told me that the church has 19 ex-offenders in its congregation and only one of those has reoffended. I went to the Library to check the reoffending rates across the United Kingdom for adult and juvenile prisoners, and I understand that the reoffending rates are 46 per cent. for adults and 77 per cent. for juveniles, so there is a pretty obvious answer to that
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local authority and the people who live in the community where that church is: people are less likely to have their car broken into or their door kicked in on a Saturday night if they have a church doing that sort of work. There are ex-offenders in every community. The example I have given is a small sample and we must not extrapolate too far on the basis of it, but if such work is being done and that sort of data is being collected across the country, that is the community benefit.

I shall draw my remarks to a close now. I am delighted that so many hon. Members have attended the debate and I look forward to receiving reassurance from the Minister on some of the issues I have mentioned.

2.49 pm

Mrs. Sharon Hodgson (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): I thank the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) for initiating the debate. I am delighted to be able to speak in a debate on Christianity in public life. I am proud to say that I am a Christian. I am a member of the Christian Socialist Movement and I am pleased to say that I am also secretary of the all-party group on Christians in Parliament.

My faith is integral to who I am and is part of who I am. I believe that the endless discussions about secular society are misplaced and that religion and public life remain inextricably linked. The Church and the wider Christian community continue to play an important role in shaping the way in which public policy is discussed and enacted. That can be in respect of what takes place on our own streets as well as far away on other continents.

I want to make two points in this short contribution. First, I wish to rebut the claim that ours is a secular society, and, secondly, I wish to back that up by highlighting the work that God inspires us to undertake, and the contribution that that work collectively makes to society.

We hear a great deal about our multicultural society, some good and some bad. I have always seen myself as living in a Christian country with a multicultural society. The two are not mutually exclusive, and both are good. Our heritage and values as a Christian nation are not only intrinsic to our democracy but are part of our national psyche. Our commitment to fairness and freedom from oppression have their roots in our faith. To my mind, so too does the emergence of our multicultural society. The grace to allow others freedom of expression is the bedrock of such a society, and we must stand up for our heritage and our future by continuing to build inter-faith dialogue.

I attend Eid and Diwali events in my constituency and enjoy celebrating those festivals with the many people for whom they are a happy time of year in which to rejoice. Celebration is common to all of us, and we should share in it wherever possible. It is part of living in a multicultural society, and we should embrace it without ever apologising for being Christians in a Christian country.

Given that not all that long ago our former Prime Minister Tony Blair was told that “We don’t do God”, this afternoon’s debate gives us a welcome chance to speak out about why we should “do” God. I can, of course, understand why that decision was taken. The role of religion in public life is not always a favourable one. Politics driven by faith alone can attract fundamentalism in many guises, none of which are
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welcome, but we should not pander to those who want to silence our voice. Keeping an ear open to the murmurings of middle England, one hears people bemoaning the decline of religion in today’s society. Feral youths roam the streets, they say, morals litter the wayside and no one ever sets foot in a church nowadays except to admire the architecture. But should we believe them, especially when there is evidence to the contrary?

Such people tell us that the loss of Christian values has skewed our moral compass and driven our emergence as a secular society, but the facts do not back them up. The statistics show that we are not really living in the secular, faithless society that many wish to portray. The last census revealed that 70 per cent. of Britons would describe themselves as Christian, and that there are more Jedi knights than secularists on our shores. For many Britons, belief is in the bones and cannot be separated from actions, whether public or private. After all, even secularists believe in secularism. That saint of secularism, Richard Dawkins, has acted with vision, passion and conviction to create a platform for his beliefs in a way that many others have done before.

Like it or not, secularists often sing from the same hymn sheet as those whom they seek to silence. Their insistence on the privatisation of religion is as dogmatic as any other creed. If we are to create a public square where all voices are equal, we must accept, when it comes to politics, that those who do not believe in something would find themselves with no opinions and, therefore, nothing to say.

But faith is not just about discourse—it is about action. Christianity can play a key role in acts of social justice, social transformation and social engagement, and we should encourage such actions. A recent article in The Times said that “Africa needs God”. The article discussed the humanitarian work done in Africa by Christian charities such as World Vision and Tearfund and said that it is largely unparalleled by other organisations.

Closer to home, in my constituency, the Gateshead-based Christian charity Aquila Way provides housing for homeless and vulnerable young women in the borough. I visited the charity in 2006 and was particularly touched by its compassion and desire to help others. The project specifically reaches out to young women who are pregnant or have very young children, and it aims to give them the skills and ongoing support to live independently.

Many churches now run parenting courses and seek to encourage families. Cornerstone is an independent fostering and post-adoption support agency based in the north-east of England. It seeks to place children with Christian families and hopes to provide permanent homes for as many children as possible. That stability is important for many children, and the charity has helped many families in the north-east. Those examples show that the Church is not afraid to engage in challenging, long-term work that makes a real difference to people’s lives.

My Christianity forms an integral part of my vision for society and how we view the world around us. When we realise the worth of our religion and its message of compassion and equality, the relevance of Christianity is clear. Of course we need to be careful about how we talk about our faith and the discourse that we use. We need to learn to translate our faith to make it better understood by modern Britain.

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A recent poll by the BBC showed that two thirds of Britons believe that the role of religion in public life should be respected. That figure will grow if we can devote our energies to living out our faith through our politics and having a noticeable impact on people’s lives. That means conveying our message through tangible action and portraying our vision through the changes that we seek and for which we fight.

I have highlighted just a few ways in which Christians engage in public life. Other hon. Members have mentioned and will mention many more. There is a renewed willingness of politicians and public figures to speak up for our Christian traditions and to allow people to embrace that part of our national identity. We need a living Christianity to carry on in the 21st century.

Let us not lament the absence of faith in society, or even lambast those who promote it. Instead, let us embrace and nurture the potential for growth that a living faith brings to Britain and the world.

Mr. Martin Caton (in the Chair): Order. It might be helpful if I say that I have a list of Back-Bench Members who would like to contribute to the debate, and that we will want to start the winding-up speeches at 3.30. If hon. Members can be brief, we will get more speakers in.

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