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06 May 2016

Parliament debates essential role of the Church in society

Parliament debates essential role of the Church in society

Proposals for Ofsted to inspect out-of-school settings attended by children and young people could severely limit the charitable work done by thousands of faith groups across the UK, a parliamentary debate has heard.

A backbench debate in parliament yesterday praised the work of the Evangelical Alliance and highlighted the positive impact faith groups have on society.

Led by two Christian MPs from opposing parties, politicians lauded the work of Christian organisations that volunteer across the country and indicated their necessity.

Fiona Bruce, Conservative MP for Congleton, and Stephen Timms, Labour MP for East Ham, came together to profile the important work to parliament.

Bruce pointed out: "The value of these activities to society is vast. They represent a glue that holds together the fabric of our communities, particularly in many needy places."

The significance of this debate is certainly not limited to Christian groups, though these were the organisations primarily referred to. The contributions of Muslim, Sikh, Jewish and Hindu groups were also recognised. Fiona Bruce commented: "The Church may not be perfect, but without her, society would certainly notice a difference."

The debate highlighted various organisations who work in challenging circumstances, providing a diverse range of support services including food distribution, religious education, addiction support, youth work, marriage and family counselling and support for people with mental health problems.

Parliament heard that these organisations encounter a number of obstacles including resistance from local authorities, limited funding and training, and potential limits to religious freedom.  The debate in parliament highlighted the resistance faith-based groups sometimes face from local councils. Authorities have been dubious in the past of faith groups' motivation in doing charity work, with MPs largely agreeing that there was more to be done to improve relations in local communities.

Fiona Bruce went on to say: "I ask ministers to think about how we can get the balance right, ensuring that there is the freedom of religion that is so yearned for by people of faith while also ensuring that local church groups are confident that they can engage with local authorities, that the expression of their faith will be accepted and understood, and that they are able to exhibit it freely. We can all do more in that regard."

Stephen Timms commended the work of several major faith groups supported by the all-party group on faith and society which he chairs, and noted a covenant that would build up trust and promote collaboration between faith-based organisations and their local councils.

Another issue that was discussed was freedom of expression and religious liberty in general. Fiona Bruce referred to a recent poll conducted by the Evangelical Alliance in which 97 per cent of the respondents stated that "policies which ensure religious liberty and freedom of expression were important to them". It is their faith, after all, that prompts them to do acts of charity and for most Christians, evangelising is an indistinguishable aspect of their faith.

Steve Double, MP for St Austell and Newquay, expressed similar concerns: "We should never be afraid to make the connection between the excellent work that the Church, Christian organisations and other faith groups carry out in our society and the deep faith and conviction that motivate them to do that work."

The proposal for Ofsted to regulate and potentially inspect out-of-school settings that children and young people attend for more than six hours a week was also raised. This has caused considerable alarm on the part of many Christians across the country. While the Alliance and other Christian groups support reasonable measures to avert violent terrorism, this proposal would severely limit the charitable work done by thousands of faith groups across the UK, groups that could not be considered extremist.

Fiona Bruce said: "Ofsted inspectors are unlikely to be looking for illegal activities. They will be looking for activities that fit into a vaguely defined list of sentiments such as non-violent extremism. This was criticised only yesterday at the Joint Committee on Human Rights—a Committee of both Houses on which I sit—as being an impossibly vague definition. It is not clear what the list of British values actually involves."

Bruce concluded by noting: "Ofsted's job is to inspect educational standards in schools, not to make ideological judgments about church youth groups or any other voluntary initiatives."

Responding to the debate for the government James Wharton acknowledged the need to do more to improve religious literacy and cooperation. He agreed Fiona Bruce "raised genuine and legitimate concerns about the way in which local government engages with faith-based organisations that want to do good work in our communities. Sometimes fear or a lack of understanding can prevent good things from being done for those communities that local government exists to serve".   

Read or watch the full debate in parliament