Faith groups to be key policy advisers
Faith groups are to be given a central role in shaping government policies, a senior minister has vowed.
By Jonathan Wynne-Jones, religious affairs correspondent
Published: 9:45PM GMT 14 Nov 2009
John Denham, the communities secretary, said the values of Christians, Muslims and other religions were essential in building a “progressive society”.
He attacked secularists who have called for religion to be kept out of public life.
Mr Denham revealed that a new panel of religious experts has been set up to advise the Government on making public policy decisions.
The move has been criticised by secularists who warned that it represented a worrying development.
However, Mr Denham argued that Christians and Muslims can contribute significant insights on key issues, such as the economy, parenting and tackling climate change.
In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph, he admitted that the Government had failed to listen to these voices in the past, but is now determined to include them in the decision-making process.
“Anyone wanting to build a more progressive society would ignore the powerful role of faith at their peril,” he said.
“We should continually seek ways of encouraging and enhancing the contribution faith communities make on the central issues of our time.
“Faith is a strong and powerful source of honesty, solidarity, generosity – the very values which are essential to politics, to our economy and our society.”
The minister said that the Government needed to be educated by faith groups on “how to inform the rest of society about these issues”.
Last year, the Church of England was highly critical of Labour, with bishops questioning the morality of its policies and accusing it of giving preferential treatment to the Muslim community.
Mr Denham said it was wrong to give special status to minority faiths, such as Islam, and stressed that faiths should not be free from criticism.
“I don’t think you should have special treatment or special favours for any particular faith. I think the treatment, in terms of the ability to have robust debate or criticism of it, should be equal.”
He added that he was sympathetic with religious leaders, such as Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had complained of the rise of aggressive secularism in Britain.
“I don’t like the strand of secularism that says that faith is inherently a bad thing to have and should be kept out of public life,” Mr Denham said.
The religious panel is being launched this week to coincide with a series of interfaith initiatives designed to increase social cohesion.
It is being headed up by Francis Davis, a fellow of Blackfriars Hall, Oxford University, who is a prominent figure in the Catholic Church.
Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, criticised the Government’s move.
“It’s totally wrong to have faith groups as consultants,” he said.
“It’s not right that they should have this privileged position to promote their dogmas, many of which are unacceptable.
“We shouldn’t have unelected people influencing decision making.”