Thursday, 21 July 2011

3 things we have learnt from the Public Administration Committee debate on faith and the Big Society

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Today the transcript was released of the discussion of faith and the big society by the Public Adminsitration Committee of the House of Commons, on 30 June 2011. Expert witnesses for the discussion were chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Right Rev Tim Stevens Bishop of Leicester (CofE), Charles Wookey Assistant for Public Affairs at the Catholic Archbishop's office and Andrew Copson CEO of the British Humanist Association.
It's not an especially long or complex document so I recommend you give it a read, but here, for what its worth are three things I learned from it.
1. Andrew Copson is an excellent advocate of the humanist and secular cause.
He was in no way intimidated by the august company he was in, and well able to hold his own. Here's a sample, his response to the question posed by the chair Bernard Jenkins as to whether the fact that people participate in voluntary activity demonstrates that we are still a Judeo-Christian country, even though precious few go to church:
"I would not say that", Andrew replied. "I think the important values of of civic participation predate the various Christian institutions even in Europe, that they are shared around the world, that they are more likely to be human values because we are social animals of cooperation and participation. I think that is a firmer foundation on which to build than separate religious beliefs." It give me a warm feeling to know that such words were said, and said so well, in Parliament, especially during a discussion of the nebulous "Big Society" pseudo-policy. Bravo Andrew.
2. Even religious groups are worried about the Big Society.
Although religious groups have a lot to gain from running social services in terms of reinforcing their relevance to a society which is in danger of out-growing them, even they can see that if the Big Society is primarily a cost-cutting exercise this could well backfire on them. As Bishop Stevens put it: "I think we in the Church need to be alert to the dangers that the Churches might be turned into utilitarian provides of services, that we become a means to an end." Churches, he said at another point "cannot be an alternative to public service provision across the piece. They cannot deliver the professionalism, they cannot deliver the resources, they cannot deliver the standards, they cannot deliver the consistency, and they should not be expected to." Quite. It could all go badly for religious groups if they were expected to provide the high levels of service (under extreme pressure) we are used to from our publicly provided services.
3. Apparently dry discussions like this can be inadvertently funny .
Andrew Copson was discussing the case of the charity Eaves Housing, who had recently lost the contract to provide services for trafficked women to the Salvation Army. Andrew having made his point chairman Jenkins interceded with this:
"It is interesting that a secular organisation should call itself after a biblical figure."
"Who is that? Eaves?" asks Andrew.
"Eve", responds Jenkins. "
"I think, "Andrew explains, "it refers to the eaves of a house."
"Oh, I beg your pardon, " says the chair, "I just have religious hearing."
"It is very common", is Andrew's dry response. Jeeves couldn't have done it better.

So there you have it. Democracy in action and gags too. Have a read.
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