Faithful providers

Just back from Radio 4’s Sunday programme where I was discussing this report from Demos endorsing religious providers of public services with its author (who was very friendly). You can hear the audio of the discussion below but here, at slightly greater length, are some of my reflections on it.

I disagree with almost every word of the report, and I think that there are real gaps in its evidence base.

One general problem is that it conflates (i) voluntary provision of services by groups who get together and use their own time and resources to provide services with (ii) public provision where an organisation receives state money to provide a statutory service to which all citizens are entitled. No one has a problem with any groups provided the first, but it’s legitimate for us all to be concerned about sensible regulation of the latter, and a serious contribution to the public policy debate on this issue should be more focussed on precisely which model it is examining.

(As well as failing to distinguish between these two models, the report also fails to distinguish between types of ‘religious’ organisation: they stretch from an entirely religious service provided by religious people to their co-religionists to a service that doesn’t actually have links with any religion at all but takes its name from one.)

Apart from that the report:

Presents case studies uncritically and omits the service user perspective…

When I looked at the list of organisations held up as exemplars of good practice, I saw immediately three which I know have discriminated against or harassed service users in ways that should be entirely unacceptable in public service provision, from homophobic harassment to bullying.

It seems odd that such organisations could be held up as good providers until you realise that actually, this report hasn’t talked to any service users. In fact this report doesn’t engage with the perspective of service users at all – only of providers – so when it says that it found ‘no evidence’ of any problems, it means that the service providers interviewed didn’t say there were any problems with their services. Go figure.

Of course when organisations are asked whether they aggressively proselytise they’re going to say no, of course they’re going to dwell on their high-minded motivations and make great claims for their success.

…just accepts the legitimacy of discrimination…

The report says that employment discrimination and proselytising does happen but it should be allowed. It makes no attempt to look at the negative effect of these sorts of discrimination. There’s not really any excuse for that – there have even been employment tribunals that have dealt with this – but even common sense would tell you that if a service moves from being secular, where jobs are open to all, to being provided by a religious contractor, where jobs are restricted, and even existing employee’s promotion prospects are limited, then that is an unfair and divisive development.

When it comes to service provision, the pamphlet says that users can go elsewhere if they don’t like it – not something that every vulnerable service user can just decide to do.

…fails to see the wood for the trees…

The report focuses on religious organisations and saying how special they are while ignoring that fact that the vast majority of the voluntary and community sector is secular: two-thirds of it.

It says that religious organisations are unique and contain people with selfless motivations, contrasting them with private companies, whereas the proper comparison if you want to support a claim of uniqueness is with the rest of the charity and community sector.

It’s an insult to all the non-religious people in the field to single out faith groups as uniquely selfless, but worse than that, it’s also bad policy because it creates the category of ‘faith’ which is really just a sub-section of the wider voluntary sector. That’s divisive and it reads like special pleading.

…ignores the demographic facts on the ground.

The long-term demographic trend is a secularising one in the UK. Of course many religious groups want to increase their service provision and use public money to do that: in part it’s a strategic decision so that they can remain important even as their worshippers depart. The Church of England has even said so frankly. But that very fact is what makes them often inappropriate to be providers.

It makes more sense in an increasingly plural society to bring people together in the public sphere – including in our public services – than to encourage sectarian division.


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