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Government-sponsored review finds religion a force for good in the UK

26 April 2023

But Bloom report urges firm action to counter forced marriage in faith communities

Alamy

The very first-ever open iftar at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London on 10 April

The very first-ever open iftar at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London on 10 April

A CLEARER understanding of faith in society would help the Government to tackle issues such as forced marriage, child safeguarding, radicalisation in prison, and faith-based extremism, an independent review has concluded.

Improved faith literacy in the public sector is key to this, it says.

The 165-page report Does government ‘do God?’ An independent review into how government engages with faith was published on Wednesday, more than three years after it was commissioned by the Government’s Levelling-Up department on the cusp of the pandemic.

It was written by Colin Bloom, a former director of the Conservative Christian Fellowship, who was appointed an independent faith engagement adviser by the Government in 2019 to explore the relationship between faith groups and public institutions in the UK. Its remit, Mr Bloom explains in the introduction to his report, “does not extend to the ongoing challenges of religiously motivated hatred, including antisemitism or anti-Muslim hatred” nor “far-right or far-left” political extremism.

His research is focused on what he calls “true believers” — people who are “true, sincere, and faithful” — with whom, he says, as with “non-believers”, the Government should work closely to improve society. This is opposed to the personal greed, ambition, and pride of what he calls “make-believers”.

More than 21,000 people responded to a public consultation (open for one month from 13 November 2020) for the review, which sets out 22 recommendations for the Government. These include:

  • improving faith literacy for all public sector staff through training;
  • improving the teaching of faith literacy and religious education in schools;
  • holding regular roundtables with national faith leaders;
  • adopting working definitions of “religion”, “belief”, and “faith”;
  • appointing an independent faith “champion”;
  • improving chaplaincy services in prisons;
  • conducting a review of radicalisation in prison;
  • reinforcing distinctions between extremist Islamism and Islam, and between Islamist extremists and ordinary Muslims;
  • reviewing the government recruitment campaigns for the UK Armed Forces to recruit and retain more minority-faith groups, particularly British-born Muslims;
  • amending the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 to make it a criminal offence for faith leaders to conduct religious and civil weddings without having ensured both participants have willingly entered into the marriage;
  • conducting a review to investigate where existing legislation fails to prevent forced and coercive marriage;
  • expanding the role of the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief to include the protection of religious freedom in the UK.

The review found that most responders to its call for evidence (84 per cent) saw faith and religion as “overall positive things” for society. One respondent said: “Faith is oxygen to many of us.”

Yet 58 per cent of responders also agreed that freedom of religion or belief was under threat in the UK. This view was particularly strong among Christians (68 per cent), who cited high-profile cases of Christians being penalised for being open about their faith in public and at work.

In a press briefing on the report with the Religion Media Centre, Tim Farron MP, a former leader of the Liberal Democrats, said that this statistic was not surprising. “To people who are not Christians, Christianity is the establishment; it is privileged.” Christians, who, he argued, were a smaller group than the establishment portrayed, needed to understand how they were perceived, and faith literacy was part of that.

“The Government will be really bad at diversity if it doesn’t understand faith in a non-patronising way,” he said. In turn, Christians and people of other faiths needed to understand better the cultural literacy of the world around them.

The report says that the Government should embrace the work that faith groups do within the community, while understanding, as one respondent put it, that this is “merely an overflow from the core of their identity, not their actual identity”. Greater engagement is needed from the Government to foster positive understanding while not “shying away” from tackling harmful practices.

A whole chapter in the report is dedicated to forms of faith extremism — most extensively 11 pages on Sikh extremism, compared with between one page or a few paragraphs on Hindu nationalism, Islamist extremism, Neo-Nazi occultist groups, white supremacy, and other forms of extremist views.

Commenting on the disparity, Mr Bloom told the Religion Media Centre briefing that the Sikh community were “outstanding” contributors to UK society, but said that work had not been done before on extremism within this group to the same extent as others. One of his 22 recommendations is that the Government should “take steps to develop a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding of subversive and sectarian Sikh extremist activity”.

Another chapter focuses on faith and education, including a recommendation to ensure that “out-of-school faith settings” such as Jewish yeshivas and Muslim madrassas are registered and inspected. “They should also ensure appropriate resources are allocated to meet children’s welfare and safeguarding requirements,” the report says. It goes on to say that RE has become a “Cinderella subject” and that teaching of the subject should be improved.

While Mr Bloom accepted that there had been many previous reports on this topic with similar recommendations; but he argued that these had not been followed through. “I just wish that either this Government, or whatever comes next, will be the Prince Charming that will take this Cinderella to the ball.”

His report recommends “the introduction of minimum standards regarding timetabling and resourcing to bring RE alongside other humanities subjects which would then be centrally inspected by Ofsted”. It also recommends that religious studies is introduced into the GCSE English Baccalaureate, as well as outreach programmes to graduates of theology and RS to improve the quality of teaching.

The final chapter focuses on forced and coercive marriage, cases of which Mr Bloom considers to be underreported, with unacceptably low criminal conviction rates. The Forced Marriage Unit reports an average of just 1359 cases a year, he writes, and only six convictions were made in 2019-20 and 235 protection orders were issued by family courts in 2020.

Mr Bloom told the briefing that the Government had for too long “ducked” the issue. “I know it’s sensitive, but nobody should be forced to be married against their will. And I’m very angry that this Government has not done more despite its fine words . . . They’ve got to stop ducking it and address it.”

His report recommends a “redoubling” of efforts by accepting the wider term “forced and coercive marriage” to cover the pressure imposed by some faith leaders on individuals to accept religious-only (non-legally binding) and arranged marriages.

Training should be provided to faith leaders to understand how to spot signs of coercive behaviour or control to facilitate a law-change, making it a criminal offence for faith leaders to conduct religious and civil weddings without ensuring both participants have willingly entered into the marriage. He does not say how this would be monitored or enforced.

The Forced Marriage Unit should be led by a Secretary of State and adequately resourced with both a operation and policy team, he adds. The Government should also record more data on forced and coercive marriage, including working more closely with social services and local councils as part of separate review.

Forced marriage is also the focus of report’s conclusion. Mr Bloom writes: “Some of the recommendations perhaps could have been bolder or more ambitious, but politics is the art of the possible. Every recommendation is within reach of this Government, and any future Government, if it wishes to grasp them.

“Tackling faith literacy, UK Armed Forces recruitment, and prison chaplaincy are all important issues, but there is one burning injustice that this Government should not shrink from, which is the issue of forced and coercive marriages. . . If only one thing is achieved from this report, confronting the pernicious and unlawful practice of forced and coercive marriage once and for all should be the goal.”

He adds: “That said, without faith, places of worship and people of faith, this country would be poorer, blander, and less dynamic. Faith is a force for good, and the Government should do more to both understand and release the potential of this fantastic resource.”

Responding to the review, the Church of England’s Director of Faith and Public Life, the Revd Dr Malcolm Brown, said: “We welcome the recognition in the report of the need for religious literacy and a greater public understanding of the major world faiths. It is a fact that the majority of people in England Wales identify with a religion, so faith is not a minority pursuit.

“Everyone has a belief-system which guides their lives so it is important to enhance understanding of religions without treating religious people as ‘other’. There is, of course, a huge diversity of faith in this country and faiths are not all the same.

“We look forward to hearing how any training and education in the field of religious literacy can be done in partnership with religious communities and from a perspective that sees faiths in the round.”

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