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20 October 2011

Charitable dialogue on an equal footing…

Charitable dialogue on an equal footing…

Heated debate has frequently surrounded both charity and equality legislation over the past few years here in NI. And yet in recent weeks I have been at two meetings focussing on these issues which have, instead, been marked by something quite different.

Evelyn Collins, head of the Equality Commission in NI, recently attended the Churches' Public Policy Network1 speaking on current and future priorities. Discussion then moved on to how the work of the commission interacts with that of the churches and vice versa. The resulting conversations proved to be incredibly helpful with a great deal of common ground being expressed by those present. This included support for the commission's desire to move away from tick-box process compliance to an outcomes orientated approach.

Encouragingly, Ms Collins also recognised the huge amount faith groups contribute to building a more just society and the current lack of official faith voices in discussions on equality. She stressed that they were not aiming for neutrality, but harmony, and would therefore welcome greater faith involvement in policy development. There will continue to be difficult issues to face including how to navigate competing rights but this is best done in relationship and proper dialogue with those who are setting and developing the equality agenda in NI. It is therefore vital that we act upon this willingness to engage.

Another refreshingly sensible exchange occurred at the Department for Social Development's Community Faiths Forum. This time we were addressed by officials involved with the new charity legislation for NI. A considerable amount of thought had clearly been put into the presentation with regard to clarifying aspects that would be of particular interest to the faith community. And while there are still aspects to be ironed out, especially around the practical application of a public benefit test, once again the ensuing discussion exposed shared desires in terms of outcomes and in applying a common sense approach.

Over all it was encouraging to see that those working on the soon to be implemented plans are committed to creating a system that ensures charities provide real benefit to society while recognising the breadth of ways this can be carried out - something we called for in our recent submission to the Programme for Government.  

After years of wanting better opportunities for sustained and official dialogue between the Assembly and churches we are now finding that increasingly they are there for the taking. However, having pushed hard on a door for a long time there is the very real danger of falling flat on our faces if it opens unexpectedly. The challenge before us now is to know what we will do with these open doors. Critiquing the current order is not enough we have to be prepared to offer practical solutions and some hard graft. 

1The Churches' Public Policy Network is an informal forum convened by the Evangelical Alliance for those involved in public policy from churches and faith based organisations in NI.