Rt Hon Stephen Timms MP
The All Party Parliamentary Group on Faith and Society was set up in 2012 to draw attention to the very positive contributions faith groups and faith-based organisations are making in communities all over the country. We wanted also, where we could, to help remove barriers which have often made it hard for them to fulfil their potential.
We began to meet faith-based organisations and to discuss how they were finding things. We quickly learned that many were struggling in their relationship with the local Council. Councils are very familiar with working with voluntary sector organisations, including commissioning services from them. But many have been reluctant to work with faith groups.
Councils worry that working with faith groups will cause problems. Some fear the groups will only really be interested in converting people. Or, if they do provide a service, it will be biased in favour of members of that group. In practice, as far as I can tell, neither of these problems ever actually occurs. But it is possible they might. And some are very eager to whip up anxiety about them.
That all changed in 2020. It came home to me that something had changed on Good Friday. I was sitting at home that morning, looking through some emails, and I came across two from constituents saying: "I don't have any food. What should I do?"
Of course, over the past ten years, I have become very familiar with referring people to foodbanks. But they would all be shut over the Easter holiday weekend, so I didn't know how to reply. However, I looked further back through my inbox, and found an email from the Mayor of Newham, Rokhsana Fiaz. It said: if you come across people without food over the holiday weekend, you should email the Vicar of Ascension Church, Royal Docks before 10 in the morning. He will then arrange for a food parcel to be delivered later that day.
I didn't have any better ideas, so I tried it. Both my constituents received their food parcels.
My local Council has never worked seriously with faith groups before. It was clear that something unusual was going on.
Keeping the faith
Our APPG carried out a research project with Goldsmith's, University of London, over the Summer of 2020.
A questionnaire was sent to every local Council in the UK. Almost half replied, and their responses showed that collaboration between Councils and faith groups has dramatically increased in the pandemic, and especially with churches. The report of the research is called "Keeping the Faith". 60% of local councils told us that they had been working with church-based foodbanks during the pandemic.
In some ways, more striking still than that was the very positive experiences council officers reported of these collaborations. One told the researcher: "My personal admiration for faith groups has gone through the roof, just in terms of their commitment there. We as a local authority didn't know what we were getting into. And they have got involved with smiles on their faces and they have done it professionally."
The researchers put to the local authorities a list of characteristics and asked whether each characterised their experience to "a great extent". "some extent", "not very much", "not at all", or "don't know". Positive characteristics scored very highly:
- "Adding value because of their longstanding presence in the local community" – 60% said that was the case " to a great extent".
- "Improving access to hard to reach groups" – 40% said that was the case "to a great extent", and another 39% "to some extent".
And the researchers also asked about negative aspects said to characterise working with faith groups.
- "Expressing socially conservative views which sit uneasily with our equalities obligations" – just 2% of the Councils said that was the case to a great extent; and
- "Causing us concern about the possibility of proselytization in the context of partnership working" – that was just 1%.
Motivation and capacity
Something very significant changed last year. We have become familiar over decades with regular reports of declining church attendance. Some believe that, given time, religious faith will die out altogether. And yet, it turned out that, in Britain in 2020, it was the faith groups, and the churches in particular, which uniquely had both the motivation and the capacity to support communities through the crisis. Far from being on the way out, they were the only players in the field. No other network or grouping or organisations came anywhere near.
And our research suggests local authorities – and I think regional and national authorities too – are not going to forget that lesson. They want these collaborations to develop and to be extended in the future.
Stephen Timms served as Chief Secretary to the Treasury from 2006 to 2007. He has been Member of Parliament for East Ham, formerly Newham North East, since 1994.