The tangled mess of state-subsidised religion

By Richard Heller

Recently I wrote a letter to Baroness Warsi, the government’s faith minister, which was published here.

I must admit that I never really expected her or her office to comment on the current Mormon campaign to convert me from atheism, and why that should attract tax relief through gift aid. The central premise of gift aid and of charitable status is that the activities of an organisation are good for British society. I infer that the government believes that Mormonism is better for British society than atheism, and that it hopes that the current campaign will have more success with me, but I still do not know why.

I did hope that she or someone might answer the other questions in my letter. Why does the country need a faith minister at all? Which faith organisations has she met and what did she discuss with them?

After waiting a long time, I wrote to her again with the same questions. I also invited her to say whether the government believes that all or any religious faiths are good for British society, or whether it applies any tests before making that judgment. I asked her what she thought of the ten negative tests which I proposed here last year.

At the same time I asked Ed Miliband whether he has appointed a shadow minister for faith, whether he intends to appoint an actual one as prime minister, and what judgment he applies to the value of religious faith in society.

As it happened my second letter crossed with one to me, on behalf of Baroness Warsi. It came from Mr Warwick J S Hawkins, the head of faith communities engagement in the Department of Communities and Local Government.

He told me: "The government recognises that faith communities make a vital contribution to national life: guiding the moral outlook of many, inspiring great numbers of people to public service and providing help to those in need. Across the country, people from different faiths are working hard in countless churches, mosques, temples, gurdwaras and synagogues, and in charities and community groups, to address problems in their local communities.

"The Christian churches, for example, have an extensive framework of buildings, experience and volunteers that can put them at the very heart of service delivery to the homeless and others in need.

"That is why the government engages with representative bodies for faith communities and is sponsoring a number of programmes, such as the Near Neighbours programme with the Church Urban Fund, designed to celebrate the social action of faith groups and encourage local faith communities to pool their resources and experience to benefit local neighbourhoods in deprived inner city areas."

Hawkins indicated to me that besides Baroness Warsi, faith groups also have a junior minister. Although not formally stated on the Department's website, this would appear to be the Liberal Democrat Don Foster. He did not tell me which religious groups either minister has met, but I understand that no-one below the rank of Archimandrite gets to see Baroness Warsi face to face.

He added, significantly: "Of course, this is not to say that people without religious beliefs are not equally committed to the public good. This team has a good working relationship with the British Humanist Association for instance."

This is nice to know, but it undercuts the case for having ministers for faith. Why do faith-based social action groups get two ministerial cheerleaders and an engagement team – as well as a little bit of special government money – in preference to non-faith groups? Moreover, do the government and the engagement team meet all-and-any faith groups who are active in society or does it keep its distance from some groups? If so, why? I have asked Hawkins.

The correspondence confirms that we have made an unholy mess of the law and public policy on religion, charity and taxation (at least in England and Wales, because they do things differently in Scotland and Northern Ireland).

The 2006 Charities Act (piloted by Ed Miliband as the responsible minister) made clear that the advancement of religion alone is not a charitable object. As with other headings of charitable activity, the Act added an independent test of providing public benefit to society, in Britain or overseas. The then government and parliament were not brave enough to define what public benefit means. It parked that job on the unelected Charity Commission.

Since then the commission has declined to pass any judgement on the merits or practices of any particular religion. It recently made a highly-contested decision to refuse charitable status to an organisation which was part of the Exclusive Brethren religious sect. However, the chairman, William Shawcross, emphasised that the commission was making no judgement on the sect itself or taken any account of widespread reports that its beliefs and practices are oppressive and harmful.

Instead, the Commission's decision was based on the narrow point that the organisation was providing benefits only to members of the sect and not to society as a whole.

The present government appears to assume that all religious faiths are good for society, although it has not had the nerve to say so.

I have no idea what Miliband thinks of these matters because he never replies to my letters. Nor do his shadow Cabinet colleagues. I think that I have got on to some kind of Labour party blacklist.

British politicians have abdicated their responsibility for too long. They should be prepared to say what they think about religion and society and frame the law around it.

If the government seriously believes that all religions are good they should amend the Charities Act so that all lawful activities by religious organisations are eligible for charitable status without any further test of public benefit.

I would then urge Ed Miliband to take the exact opposite course. He should say that all religion is a matter of personal belief and that it does not matter to society generally whether more people hold certain types of belief. There would therefore be no charitable relief for any religion per se: religious organisations could apply for relief only for specific activities which serve another charitable purpose, such as relief of suffering, or preservation of a beautiful building. Apart from being 'the right thing to do', I think this would make him more popular.

Either of these courses would give some coherence to the law and public policy.

However, if the parties intend to cling to the present law and apply some test of public benefit to religion they should now be prepared to tell us what that test means.

Meanwhile, I shall continue my pursuit of Baroness Warsi. Would she meet me if I became a Mormon?

Richard Heller was formerly political adviser to Denis Healey and Gerald Kaufman. He has been a professional speechwriter for over thirty years and is the author of standard manual High Impact Speeches (published by Prentice Hall Business).