Tough questions are being raised over the implications of the British government’s plans to further increase and promote the role of faith groups in the management of offenders, both in prisons and in the community.
Publications released this week by the Ministry of Justice make clear the government’s intention effectively to hand over control of the rehabilitation of some of the most vulnerable people in society to religious organisations - in a way that may raise serious human rights issues.
The government is keen to involve voluntary groups in welfare delivery, both for financial reasons and because it believes such groups, including faith ones, can bring 'added vaue'.
However earlier in 2008 government sources admitted that there is no hard evidence that faith-based interventions have a direct impact on re-offending rates. Neither is there evidence that selective religious organisations have better, measurable outcomes than inclusive secular organisations.
Equalities and other civic bodies are concerned that in the rush to outsource support for vulnerable people, issues of fair and equal treatment are being marginalised. The boundary between welfare support and proselytism is also an issue.
Naomi Phillips, Public Affairs Officer for the British Humanist Association, said yesterday: "The Government has failed to address any of the deep concerns about such a strategy that we made in our response to its consultations earlier this year, including the move by stealth away from an inclusive provision of such services and the risk of lower standards of service provision."
She continued: "What is especially concerning is that there has been no acknowledgment or discussion of the exemptions from law for religious organisations that allow them to discriminate on grounds of religion or belief and on sexual orientation in employment and to discriminate on grounds of religion or belief in the provision of goods, facilities and services. Such organisations are also not bound by the Human Rights Act 1998.
Ms Phillips concluded: "We consider there to be a real risk that they will breach the human rights of offenders and their families in the provision of services, such as the right to freedom of belief. Yet these concerns have simply not been addressed."