Faith and social action

Transcript of the speech as delivered. I grew up in West Yorkshire. One of the great things about that part of the world is that you can …

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Rt Hon Lord Pickles

Transcript of the speech as delivered.

I grew up in West Yorkshire. One of the great things about that part of the world is that you can go from urban to rural in a few steps. For many years some friends of mine lived in Pudsey. Often we would go for Sunday lunch and, afterwards, head off for a walk. We would go deep into the woods to a clearing, bounded by trees - a great natural amphitheatre.

There, in the eighteenth century, John Wesley used to preach. Working men and women gathered from miles around. Coming in secret, they travelled for hours and through all weathers to hear the great man speak. As the preacher’s voice rang out through that bower, those men and women heard not just of the world to come, but of the world around them - the plight of communities; of poverty and power; of equality and freedom.

Wesley lived through a time of immense change. At his birth in 1703 a person growing up in the countryside had no substantial thought or expectation of change. They would follow in their parents’ trade of profession. They would most likely end their life in the village where they began it. By the time Wesley died, in 1791, Britain had gone from being an agrarian nation to the first industrial power. Every generation since has expected change; people would travel; cities would grow at a phenomenal rate from then onwards. And at this time of change, faith was a great strength.

While Europe tore itself apart, Wesley’s voice, and the voice of countless other believers, rang out in this country. They inspired their fellow men and women to act with reason and compassion. This tradition continued into the nineteenth century. Think of the great Wilberforce, and his untiring efforts to stop the slave trade; or Elizabeth Fry, valiantly striving for decent treatment of prisoners. They, and the hundreds of thousands of men and women who supported them, transformed Britain. When you remember that Gladstone’s first speech in the House of Commons was in defence of the rights of plantation owners, there is no doubt that by the end of the nineteenth century this country was in many senses a more moral place than it was at the start.

A person’s faith is what makes that person. It is impossible to divorce faith from moral actions. Wilberforce said:

Is it not the great end of religion…to smooth the asperities of man… to make us compassionate and kind and forgiving…to make us good husbands, good fathers, good friends…?

This is true not just of Christianity but of all faiths. I was at a meeting of the General Synod a few months back, sitting next to a member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews while the different leaders of Church of England delivered their piece. At one point, Archbishop Sentamu said “the Christian Church has been doing the Big Society for 2000 years.” The member of the Board of Deputies leant over and whispered “2000 years? Not a bad start.”

Faith today continues to inspire people to want to do good for their neighbours - whatever their background, and whether they share their faith or have none. I have never in my life come across a church, a synagogue, a temple, a mosque, a gurdwara, a chapel that wholly looked within. That only looked after members of its faith. They are all rooted in - and seeking to do good for - their wider local communities.

The problem is that, in our recent years, some people have started becoming suspicious about religion. In the eyes of some, the fact that you are a Christian means that you are “weird.” They ask you to be silent about faith - or not get involved in your community. And if that happens everyone - everyone - loses out from that.

Because we know that you can make a difference. Raising money for social causes. Looking after your neighbourhood. And reaching people in their darkest hour - when they are suffering with debt, divorce, drugs or despair.

We want to tap into that secular side of your work, into your huge potential to do good. We want to help you fulfil it to the best of your abilities. Not by duplicating. Not by muscling in. But complementing what we find on the ground. And giving you the freedom and encouragement you need.

Now the Great British dilemma is that anyone who wants to get involved immediately has to become an expert. Not in care - but in paperwork. The bureaucracy squeezes out and soaks up the enthusiasm.

The pendulum of health and safety has swung way beyond taking care of people. It has become the bureaucrats’ defence:

“If we do our best to stop things happening, nothing can go wrong.”

“And if nothing can go wrong - then we’re safe.”

Lord Hodgson’s review, Unshackling Good Neighbours, made a powerful case that things have to change.

His team heard evidence that a parochial church council organising a fundraising event might have to apply for up to ten different licences.

Even a modest tombola might need official permission.

The Government will be considering the review’s recommendations.

But it seems clear to me that it’s high time for a return to common sense.

And the tone is very much in keeping with what the Government is already doing to make life easier for charities.

By 2013, charities will be able to make gift aid claims online, saving them time and resources.

They will be able to claim gift aid on up to five thousand pounds of small donations, without having to fill out gift aid forms.

And any groups who are finding it hard to get things done can already get in touch with my Department through our ‘barrier busting’ website.

If you’re struggling with the unintended consequences of new laws, or over-the-top bureaucracy, my officials can provide support. Because the Big Society means less “officials telling you what to do” - and more “you telling officials how they can help.”

At the same time as we are reducing red tape, we recognise that we are living in very tough financial times.

This Government is dealing with the legacy of the worst recession since the Second World War.

We have taken very difficult decisions to foster growth for the long term.

At every stage, it has been out aim to protect the most vulnerable.

My Department has stretched every sinew to cushion the impact of tight budgets.

Changing the way the grants to local authorities are distributed so that the poorest areas are sheltered most.

And doing as much as we can to safeguard grants to support disabled and elderly people.

We continue to recognise the invaluable work of faith organisations, strengthening the social fabric.

Earlier this year, we awarded £5m to the Church Urban Fund for the ‘Near Neighbours’ programme.

This programme will provide up to £5,000 for small-scale, grass-roots projects designed to bring people together from different backgrounds: perhaps through sport, art, or community action - maybe clearing up a local park or estate.

I very much look forward to this fund supporting innovative, powerful projects.

But of course, it is not often central Government that you look to as your partner first and foremost in your work with communities.

It is local authorities.

Some local authorities recognise the amazing potential of faith groups - giving them grants, or commissioning them to provide services.

Places such as Chester, Trafford and Stoke-on-Trent have developed a proper, mature relationship.

In other places, councils are reluctant. They fight shy.

But if faith groups are better placed to reach different communities than just about anyone else, and if they have the networks to influence those who need help most, then councils are missing a trick.

So we want to change the balance.

Instead of faith groups relying on the good will of local authorities to get involved, we are giving them rights to have a say.

The Localism Bill includes two key measures that place power in the hands of local charities.

The first is the right to buy.

People will be able to nominate local landmarks and properties that they care about as ‘assets of community value’.

When these assets are sold or change hands, local groups will be given extra time to put together a credible bid to take them over.

In other words, we’re making it easier for local faith groups to take over buildings:

Easier for, say, the old meeting hall to become the new premises of a social enterprise.

The second major new right for charity and community groups is the Right to Challenge.

Local groups who have a bright idea for how a service could be run better - whether it’s meals on wheels, or homelessness support - will be able to put their proposals in front of the council for proper consideration.

If the proposals are of a decent quality, this will trigger a procurement exercise in line with normal legal requirements.

And if a faith group puts forward the best proposals, it will have the chance to put its bright ideas into practice.

These new rights will open the door for faith groups to get further involved in local life. And it’s right that they do so.

At the beginning of this new century, or country is home to many different faith communities: Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Jewish, Buddhist, Jain and more.

The fact that we have different faiths makes us stronger.

They have a legitimate role in commenting on social issues. Making us examine our policies.

And crucially, faith groups are the heart and soul of local communities.
They bring huge energy and enthusiasm about improving the opportunities, improving the life chances, and improving the lot of their fellow citizens.

These next few years will be challenging for all communities across our country. We need the contribution of faith groups more than ever.

So my great hope is that future generations will be able to look back and see today as the point when the British became comfortable with social action inspired by faith. And I have no doubt that, come what may, you will all continue to heed Wesley’s words - to:

Do all the good you can. By all the means you can.
In all the ways you can.
In all the places you can.
At all the times you can.
To all the people you can.
As long as ever you can.”

Published 16 June 2011