Thursday, 22 March 2012

Westminster Faith Debate: What role for Religious Organisations in an era of Shrinking Welfare?

Good day to you all, and let me introduce myself. I am Jonathan Barr, a new Baptist kid on the JPIT block. I have been working with the team for little over a month, and now come to contributing a blog to the site...

Yesterday afternoon the Chancellor of the Exchequer delivered his budget to the House of Commons. There could be no surprises, as most of it had been leaked in advance.  The personal allowance will be increased, the top rate of tax will be cut. Pensioners will be hit hard by the phasing out of the old age allowance, and many more people than before will find themselves paying the 40% rate of tax.  He also gave some hint of things to come. State welfare spending is, he said, set to “consume a third of all government spending.”  The government will need to make savings in welfare of £10 billion by 2016. Central government welfare spending in 2012 is set to be £58.3 billion. So this will, without doubt, mean significant change.

This will, of course, considering the huge number of faith based organizations that endeavor to deliver care to those to needy, be of particular interest to churches. Demand on their services will surely increase and their resources look set to shrink.  It was with these things in mind that I attended the Westminster faith debate entitled “What role for Religious Organizations in an era of Shrinking Welfare.  This was the fourth in a series of debates organized by Charles Clarke, Linda Woodhead and Rebecca Cato, funded by AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society Programme in partnership with the think tank Theos.
We don’t do God,” New Labour spin doctor Alistair Campbell famously remarked. “Well actually” corrects, David Blunkett “we did!” It was just very subtle and not a lot of people noticed, he said.   The academic Adam Dinhan provided more information. The Labour government, he remarked, valued faith groups for the resources they offer, their willingness to be active citizens, and their community spirit. It made funding available to groups of all faiths, to regional faith fora, and involved them in the administration of local government. The new government has also appreciated the role of faith groups in welfare, although it has not thrown quite so much money in their direction.  Commenting on the future of Faith based groups, he remarked that young people are no where near so “binary in the division between the religious and the secular”, they recognize a “welfare economy” with all faith traditions involved.
But what about the other side of welfare? What does it mean to be the recipient of the generosity of faith based organizations rather than that of secular groups? This was the subject of Sarah Johnson’s presentation.  “Faith based services for homeless people,” she remarked, “are not as different from their secular counterparts as is commonly presumed.” Indeed homeless people often find it difficult to discern the difference between the two, and certainly detect no difference in the quality of the service provided.  Homeless services can be divided more easily by whether they are interventionist or non interventionist in their approach. On the whole, Johnson’s research found that secular services are more likely to be interventionist than those of faith based organizations.
Both the academics then hypothesized a blurring of the differences between the faith-based organizations and the secular, and a growing accommodation of them both within the public sphere. 

   The key difference between the secular and faith based organizations, is, of course, the motivation of its funders and volunteers, as Arch-Bishop Peter Smith pointed out. And as such, the sheer quantity of these organizations, which do their work often without any interference or contribution, from the government, provide a great witness to the contribution of faith to the life of the nation that is being seen in the highest circles. So keep it up!