Religious public service providers questioned by new report

By staff writers
28 Nov 2007

Proposed public service reforms by the UK government risk discrimination against employees and service users, together with negative effects on social cohesion, says a new report today - focussing on the role of faith-based providers.

The British Humanist Association (BHA) is today launching a major new study on the contracting out of public services to religious organisations. It is being supported by the Trades Union Congress and its conclusions endorsed by public figures including Lord Warner, former minister at the Department of Health.

The report’s findings demonstrate, says its authors, that there is no evidence that religious organisations offer any distinctive benefits to the supply and provision of public services. Indeed they suggest that the government’s policy objective of expanding the role of religious organisations within the public services runs the risk of lowering standards, increasing inequalities, introducing ‘parallel services’ and damaging social cohesion.

The research warns of the dangers of discrimination against staff not protected by Employment Equality Regulations pertaining to religion or belief or sexual orientation because of the exemptions that religious organisations have from equality legislation, and of potential barriers to accessing public services for the general public.

Hanne Stinson, BHA Chief Executive, said today "We are publishing Quality and Equality to draw attention to our concerns about the current policy to make religion a central feature in the provision and delivery of a wide range of public services. Through the report, we want to make clear our position that the most fair and most inclusive services – for service users of all faiths and none – are secular services."

She continued: "The report sets out the problems for employees and service users, the risks of discrimination and inequality, the damage to social cohesion and the infringements on human rights, which will arise from the Government’s policy of contracting out public services to religious organisations. We are calling on the government to address these concerns."

Simon Barrow, co-director of the religious think tank Ekklesia, commented: "We share with the authors of this report a concern for comprehensive equalities and quality in public service provision. There are some fine examples of faith-inspired organisations working in the voluntary sector, but also real problems and questions in the public service arena which need addressing urgently. This report deserves to be read with an open mind by all involved. It is part of an important and growing debate."

Ekklesia has questioned the impact of what it calls 'the new deal' between government and faith groups on public service provision - saying that it can pose difficulties for all concerned, including the danger that Christian groups get sucked into a functionalist relationship with the state which dims issues of equality and justice that lie at the heart of the Christian message.

The new report, Quality and Equality, calls for inclusive services open to all and recommends a more transparent tendering process for religious organisations contracted into public service supply and delivery. In addition, it highlights the need for legislative change to ensure that organisations providing public services:

* could not discriminate between service users on grounds of ‘religion or belief’, or on any other grounds;
* must respect the human rights of service users;
* have equality-based employment policies, so that no one is privileged for a position because of her/his religion or belief, her/his sexual orientation, or on any other irrelevant ground.

The Rt Hon Lord Warner, former Minister of State, Department of Health, added: "As a strong supporter of a mixed economy of providers of public services in the interests of choice, contestability and more personalisation of services it is vital that public money is not used to further religious objectives or to discriminate against service users and staff."

He continues: "This report shows why we need to amend the Human Rights Act – a groundbreaking piece of legislation by this Government – and other equality legislation to remedy the situation that has been inadvertently created in our public services. The continuing and necessary programme of reform in our public services makes it ever more urgent to erect stronger legislative barriers to prevent discriminatory behaviour by religious organisations."

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