The government’s Localism Bill offers a chance to have fair and inclusive public services, but only if parliament makes changes to prevent discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief, the British Humanist Association (BHA) says.
The Decentralisation and Localism Bill, introduced to parliament yesterday, sets out the government’s aims in creating the so-called ‘Big Society’, including a new right for local people, communities and faith groups to take on the delivery of local public services.
However, concerns have been raised by community, equality and local authority organisations over issues ranging from funding through to political accountability and discrimination issues - including significant legal exceptions for religious groups to discriminate in various ways.
The British Humanist Association's Head of Public Affairs, Naomi Phillips commented: "Special privileges afforded to churches, mosques, faith-based charities and other religious organisations providing public services, which permit potentially wide-spread discrimination against those of no religion or with the 'wrong religion', will only create barriers to participation."
She added: "We want to see policies that promote real inclusion of all people regardless of belief. That means policies which do not permit refusing employment to a person for a publicly-funded position just because they do not believe in god, or which permit making prayer a requirement in order to receive a service. Unfortunately, current government policy allows all sorts of exclusive and discriminatory practices to take place in the provision of services by religious organisations."
"The BHA works closely with others, including religious groups, and we know that our concerns to have fair and inclusive secular public services are widely shared," stressed Ms Phillips. "Parliamentarians have an opportunity through the Localism Bill to make legislative changes that will rule out discrimination by religious organisations when they are working under public contract to provide services. Such moves would finally treat civil society groups equally and fairly in practice."
Meanwhile, the New Local Government Network has described details of local government finance settlements, along with the Localism and Decentralisation Bill, as "a real disappointment to communities."
"If you are a council facing frontloaded cuts of up to 40 per cent, then greater freedom in how you spend it means little but a devolved axe," an NLGN analyst said.
"If you are a resident concerned about vital home care for your elderly parent, or living in fear of anti-social behaviour on your estate, you will expect action from the your council. This bill provides few relevant tools for these really difficult issues."
Kate Henderson, chief executive of the Town and Country Planning Association, called the Bill "the most far-reaching proposals to change the planning system since the 1947 Planning Act."
"However, questions remain about matching the resources to the programme for transformation expected in the bill," she added. "In order for a neighbourhood plan to be a meaningful choice, communities are going to need intellectual as well as financial support."