Concerns raised about faith-based public services
Concerns have been raised about the growth of faith-based public services, which has emerged as a result of the government’s public service reforms. As the economy continues to stagnate, there has been a rapid expansion in the number of food banks, many of which are run by religious organisations. Some local authorities, as well as the Welsh Government, are looking into the possibility of funding food banks, some of which are religious groups. The British Humanist Association (BHA) has expressed concerns about this and will be writing to the Government for assurances. When religious groups take on roles that would previously have been provided by secular organisations, this threatens the secular nature of the welfare state, and raises the possibility of discrimination in public services.
The Government in Westminster has been encouraging charities to take on a greater role in providing public services, as part of its idea of the ‘Big Society’, and the expansion of food banks can be seen in the context of this policy. Many of the organisations which run food banks are religious. For example, the Trussell Trust, which is the biggest food bank network in the UK and runs more than 200 local branches, is a Christian organisation. Many of the food banks which operate at the moment do not appear to discriminate on religious grounds, but as the welfare state becomes increasingly dependent on religious groups, there is a risk that religious discrimination will start to creep in to the system.
The exemptions in the Equality Act 2010 enable religious organisations which provide public services to discriminate on the grounds of religion and belief. Previous legal cases (the Leonard Cheshire case and YL v Birmingham City Council) have also set the precedent that organisations in the private sector contracted by the state to provide public services, including religious groups, do not qualify as ‘public authorities’ under the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA). This means that anyone discriminated against by a religious group providing public services would not be able to use the HRA to challenge this discrimination in the courts.
Apart from food banks, other worrying examples of public services being inappropriately contracted to religious groups have already taken place. In April last year, Richmond Borough Council transferred a contract for teenage counselling from a secular group to the Catholic Children’s Society. Concern was expressed by the BHA and some local councillors at this organisation’s ability to provide information on contraception and unwanted pregnancies, and to meet the needs of clients suffering from homophobic bullying.
Pavan Dhaliwal, BHA Head of Public Affairs, commented ‘getting religious organisations involved in the delivery of public services undermines the secular character of the welfare state, and could lead to discrimination against employees and users of public services. We need secular public services which cater for everyone regardless of their religion or belief, and which treat people equally. Before any public funding is provided to religious food banks, or to any other religious organisation contracted to run public services, there must be statutory rules introduced to protect all clients and employees of public services from discrimination.’
BHA news article about the Salvation Army taking over services for victims of trafficking:
BHA news article about children’s counselling service being handed to the Catholic Children’s Society:
The BHA’s campaign on public service reform:
The BHA on the Human Rights Act 1998 and the meaning of ‘Public Authority’:
The Leonard Cheshire legal case:
The legal case of YL v Birmingham City Council:
Guardian articles on food banks: