HL Deb 22 October 2003 vol 653 cc1609-12

2.50 p.m.

Lord Peston asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why a committee has been set up to consult "faith communities" on policy making, while non-religious people are not similarly consulted.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

My Lords, the Government have a manifesto commitment to review the ways in which they consult the faith communities. The time-limited steering group taking that forward is identifying the most effective ways for departments to involve faith communities in developing and implementing policy, where appropriate. It is not itself a mechanism for consultation. Bodies representing non-believers, such as the British Humanist Association, are frequently consulted on policy. That will continue to be the case.

Lord Peston

My Lords, I must extend the usual courtesy to my noble friend and thank her for that Answer, but I cannot see any connection between it and the Question. I wish noble Lords to know what precisely there is about the nature of these religious groups and public policy itself that makes the Government think that the two should be conjoined. What is there about secular views that makes it appropriate not to have any formal mechanism for taking them into account in the same way? Why are the two being treated differently?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I am disappointed that my Answer did not find favour with my noble friend. He will know that 76.8 percent of the United Kingdom's population regard themselves as having some religious affiliation.

For many people, their faith determines the way in which they conduct their life and the values that they hold. By consulting faith groups, the Government can ensure that all the issues raised by different faith communities are given full consideration in the development of policy. As I said, the review is not inviting consultation on policy issues but is seeking to discover better ways of consulting those who have faith.

I can reassure my noble friend that Fiona Mactaggart is holding meetings with secularists and humanists separately to discuss the review and other policy issues. She met the National Secular Society on 24th September and will meet the British Humanist Association on 20th November.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, given that 76 per cent of people have deeply held religious views, which one must respect, would it not be easier just to include the other 24 per cent and call it an election?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we have already had one of those, and it was entirely successful for the Government.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that it is very difficult to find out—from the Home Office website or otherwise—the names of the members of the committee that advises Miss Mactaggart? Having discovered who they are, I ask the noble Baroness whether she is satisfied that they are truly representative of the faiths in this community. Many people believe that, if we are going to conduct such an exercise, it should be based on the widest possible consultation. The members seem to have been chosen from a rather narrow range of beliefs.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I do not agree that they have been chosen from a narrow range. The point is that, regrettably, the faith communities have not been as good as many other groups at making their views known. Some do not have a proper method of consulting. We hope that, by having the steering group, we will be able to understand better what we need to do to make sure that they can make a full consultation.

The noble Lord will know that many faith groups deliver on-the-ground services to many people in our community. Understanding what they do and how they do it, so that we can help, is rather important.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many people with a secular outlook have, nevertheless, a strong social commitment? We care very much about what happens to our fellow citizens. I speak as vice-president of the British Humanist Association. It seems to me that we are not consulted in the same way as faith organisations, and we ought to be. We represent a large number of people, and we have a great deal to contribute.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I agree that many people who have secular views have much to contribute and do contribute. We have taken every opportunity to consult. Secular and humanist societies are consulted on many occasions by most departments. We do not think that we are detracting in any way from that. We are trying to deepen and enhance the opportunities for people to come together to do a bit of good.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, is it not a fact acknowledged by the Government and the Opposition that the faith communities play an important role in tackling social challenges? Often, they find themselves on their own. Is the Minister aware that their basis of faith is often the reason for their exclusion from public funding? Will she look into the issue of the poor access to funding from which some faith-based charities suffer? The matter might be considered as part of the current review of the Government's interface with faith communities.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I hear what the noble Lord says. I agree that faith communities can have an important role in helping to tackle social issues, as do many other groups. That is important.

I cannot say that I agree with the noble Lord that such groups are excluded improperly from assistance, but I shall inquire into the matter and write to him about what is available.

The Lord Bishop of Chester

My Lords, after all the rhetoric about moving towards a post-Christian society to which we were subjected in the latter decades of the 20th century, over 70 per cent of the population of England and Wales—over 80 per cent in Cheshire and the North West—declared themselves to be Christian. To that must be added the other faith communities. Does the Minister agree that the need to consult the faith communities is one of the key priorities of the 21st century? World events have demonstrated that, if we can achieve peace between religions, we are well on the way to achieving aspects of world peace.

In saying that, however, I must emphasise that, in no way do we want the consultation to be exclusive. It must be part of the full range of consultation with bodies in society. However, no one should underestimate the importance of consultation with faith communities.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I have tried to make it clear that we think that it is important to consult all groups. The review seeks better ways of consulting the faith communities. I agree with the right reverend Prelate that that is of importance.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, many faiths ascribe a lower status to their female adherents. What are the Government doing to offset such bias? Secondly, how is it that the Chief Rabbi has been selected to represent Jewry, when he cannot speak for liberal or reform Jewry?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, in the review, we do not seek to get involved in the differences within religions. As your Lordships will know, we have laws on gender bias that apply to everyone, irrespective of race, religion or ethnicity. The views of liberal Jewry are, in fact, represented.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, can the noble Baroness tell us how the 70-odd per cent of religious people in this country are split? The Bishops might be interested in that.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I can certainly write to the noble Lord. All I can do is affirm—with some pleasure, I confess—that 76.8 per cent regard themselves as having some religious affiliation.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, the noble Baroness said that liberal views are represented. But is she aware that if one looks at the list of those in this curious group, only the Chief Rabbi is listed? Therefore, reform Jews, liberal Jews and secular Jews like myself are not represented on the committee and would strongly resent the idea that the Chief Rabbi spoke on our behalf on matters of government policy.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, this group is not speaking about policy matters in relation to government policy. The group is seeking to find better ways of consulting faith communities. The group is not involved directly in consultation on government policy at the moment. Your Lordships will also know that there are other advisers to the steering group who can make appropriate inputs in relation to broader issues. I absolutely take what the noble Lord says; namely, that there is a broad spectrum. Liberal Jews are indeed represented on the panel of advisers.