Faith in Politics

I am delighted to be with you this morning.

As a member of CSM, I am proud of the long and strong tradition of Christian Socialism within the Labour party. But the Christian faith is not and should never be the monopoly of any one political party or section of the community. An abhorrence of prejudice based on race, class, gender or occupation is fundamental to the Gospels. It is what draws so many Christians into politics, across the political spectrum.

I am also delighted to see here today representatives from many other faith communities. Our major faith traditions – all of them more historic and deeply rooted than any political party or ideology – play a fundamental role in supporting and propagating values which bind us together as a nation.

The first National Holocaust Day, two months ago, was a testament to this fundamental unity. Religious leaders and political leaders joined together in honouring the sacredness of life, the equal worth of all, the importance of inclusion, and the responsibility of each individual and each community to uphold these values and never to forget the evil of which human societies are capable.

This year’s census will, for the first time, contain a voluntary question about religion. Some will be surprised that this is necessary, at a time when many have been saying that religion and spirituality are in decline.

But I sense that the conventional wisdom is no longer the reality in modern Britain. I sense a new and vital energy about the practice of faith in the UK. A new and vital energy within the churches and other faith groups about engagement in the communities within which you work and have your being. And a new appreciation of the valuable work done by countless ministers of religion and their congregations, day in day out.

Values and politics

Today’s theme of ‘faith in politics’ is, at the most basic level, about the importance of values in politics and public life.

Politics without values is sheer pragmatism. Values without politics can be ineffective. The two must go together. So faith in politics isn’t only about the relationship between faith and politics. It is also about having faith in the political process itself and its capacity to achieve a better society. In an age of cynicism about politics, this cannot be emphasised too strongly.

Our values are clear. The equal worth of all citizens, and their right to be treated with equal respect and consideration despite their differences, are fundamental. So too is individual responsibility, a value which in the past the Left sometimes underplayed. But a large part of individual responsibility concerns the obligations we owe one to another. The self is best realised in community with others. Society is the way we realise our mutual obligations – a society in which we all belong, no one left out. And Parliament and government, properly conceived, are the voice and instrument of the national community.

Equal worth, responsibility, community – these values are fundamental to my political creed. They play a large part in faiths represented here today. You seek to realise them not just in the practice of your faith, but in your community and voluntary activity, extending far beyond the confines of your regular congregations.

I will say something about this voluntary activity later. But let me first address the critical issue of translating values into policies.

Values into policy

Policy is of course the business of politics. And it is not an easy business. In working out the best way forward it is not always simple to determine the right balance between the values of equal worth, community and individual responsibility.

For example, every issue in the reform of the welfare state involves judgements about what the individual can rightly expect of society, and what society can rightly expect of the individual.

The purpose of society is to empower the individual; to enable them to fulfil not just their economic potential but their potential as citizens. This is a contract between us all, based on mutual responsibility.

When we say that everyone able to do so has a clear responsibility to find a job and look after their family, we don’t therefore say that government has no role. On the contrary, with policies such as the New Deal, the minimum wage and the Working Families Tax Credit, society through Government is harnessing national resources to see that work pays, that job seekers get the support they need to find jobs, and that those with family responsibilities get the extra help they require without having to go back onto benefit. That approach explains why unemployment today is below a million for the first time in a quarter of a century.

A sharper focus on individual responsibility is going hand-in-hand with a great improvement in the support provided by government. Responsibility from all – security and opportunity for all. Not an idle slogan, but the only way forward as we break the old culture which left generations of families trapped in unemployment and poverty.

It is also the reason for investing in children. We are committed to abolishing child poverty in 20 years and reducing it by a quarter by 2004. Tax and benefits changes made since 1997 are lifting a million children out of poverty.

Education is critical. Children only get one chance of a decent education and too many have been failed in the past. When we came to office, barely half of 11 year-olds were up to standard in basic literacy and numeracy. Now, thanks to smaller class sizes and the literacy and numeracy strategies, the proportion has risen to nearly three-quarters. All children are of equal worth. We want all children to have the opportunities and aspirations which only a minority possessed in the past.

And we can’t separate the welfare of children from the families in which they are brought up. As I said in welcoming National Marriage Week, ‘I fully support marriage and see it and family life as the foundation of a strong and stable society. The Government’s primary concern is with the stability of relationships where children are involved, and we recognise that this stability is most easily found within marriage.’

These are obligations we recognise within our nation, based on our values. But the nation itself is part of a broader community of nations.

Churches and other faith groups make a major contribution in delivering healthcare and education to the poorest in developing countries. I pay tribute to the work of the faith communities and their leaders, through Jubilee 2000, in highlighting the scale and urgency of the issues we face as members of an international community with obligations to its least advantaged.

Since the end of the Millennium Year, Britain has been deriving no profit from any debt repayments from the world’s most heavily indebted poor countries. We have already agreed either to cancel their debts, or to place repayments in trust, ready for the day when the money can be used to tackle poverty. And we are encouraging other countries and the multilateral institutions to follow our lead.

I know that for many responding to the CSM’s Faith in Politics enquiry, progress on debt relief has been especially welcomed. Many have also welcomed the fact that, after 18 years of decline, the proportion of Britain’s GDP committed to overseas aid is rising again. Between 1997 and 2004 the aid budget will increase by 45% in real terms. By the final year it is set to total £3.6 billion, the largest UK aid budget ever.

But there is much more to do. We need more development aid from everyone in the international system; and we need to ensure that it is used more effectively. We need better terms of trade for poor countries and policies to help them attract greater flows of private investment. We need policies to tackle corruption and to promote effective governance and human rights. We need a stronger voice for poor countries within international institutions, and action to protect the environment. And we need increased investment in education and health.

For me these are basic issues of justice, and the government is active on all these fronts. The international development targets are clear: to halve the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty; to get all primary age children into school; to reduce infant and child mortality by two-thirds; and to ensure sustainable development plans are in place in every country to reverse the loss of environmental resources. We are committed to achieving all these targets by 2015.

Let me particularly highlight the health issue. Earlier this month Gordon Brown and Clare Short underlined our commitment to a major new global health fund to tackle the three diseases – HIV-AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria – which kill 6 million people a year, most of them in the poorest countries of sub-Saharan Africa. With some countries facing HIV infection rates of between 25 and 35 per cent, there is a real threat that we could see a reversal of the development gains made in Africa in the last half-century.

Together with the Italian and Canadian governments and the European Commission, we are promoting the idea of a new global health fund to combat the diseases of poverty. I have set up a dedicated team to look at how such a fund could work and I hope to have specific proposals to put to colleagues in the G8 in the summer.

In all these areas – poverty, children, education, international development – we have made a start. But we have so much more to do to live up to our values, and we will not be satisfied until we have achieved far more.

Community action – ‘partners not substitutes’

Let me turn now to local communities and the role of churches and other faith groups.

Community action has always been a central mission of the churches and other faith groups. Looking outwards to the needs of others, beyond your own immediate members, is a prime expression of your beliefs and values. And in carrying out this mission you have developed some of the most effective voluntary and community organisations in the country.

In many cases you meet urgent social needs directly. In others you work in partnership with central and local government to give a special character to the delivery of public services which the state funds and would otherwise have to provide directly. In both these areas you make a unique contribution.

Education is a prime example of this second activity. Church schools are a true partnership between the churches and the government. They are a pillar of our national education system, valued by very many parents for their faith character, their moral emphasis, and the high quality of education they generally provide. Since 1997 we have been glad to form partnerships with other faith groups to provide state-funded schools.

It is misguided and outdated to suggest that there is a straight choice between voluntary activity and state activity. The two should go together. And where the two do go together – the government fully recognising its obligations, looking to the voluntary sector as partner not substitute – the impact is far greater than government acting on its own. We see this in countless charities, schools, health projects, youth work, provision for the elderly, the homeless, work with offenders and ex-offenders, local regeneration schemes and many other social activities.

Faith groups are among the main sponsors and innovators of voluntary activity in all these areas. Community by community, you are engaged directly. You know the terrain. You have committed volunteers, and often an infrastructure invaluable for delivering projects speedily and effectively. And you do this because of your faith, not in isolation from it, a point that government – central and local – must always appreciate.

My message today is therefore simple. Your role in the voluntary sector, working in partnership with central and local government, is legitimate and important. And where you have the desire and ability to play a greater role, with the support of your communities, we want to see you do so. But again I emphasise, we want you as partners, not substitutes.

We want to take this partnership forward wherever we can.

We are supporting an increase in the number of church and other faith schools, where you wish to sponsor them and there is local support.

We are giving new community-based initiatives like Sure Start – for the under-threes in vulnerable areas – a specific brief to form partnerships with local voluntary and faith organisations.

We are launching today Experience Corps, a national organisation with £19m of funding over three years to promote volunteering by the over-50s in each locality.

Experience Corps will operate through an independent company chaired by Sally Greengross. It will work in partnership with public and voluntary sector organisations, including faith-based groups, to create and fill new volunteering opportunities for the over-50s nationwide.

There is far more we can do in partnership if we create the right opportunities.

This is why, from next week, we will pay for most of the cost of VAT on repair and refurbishment work carried out on listed buildings in the faith sector. You can now spend less on repairing the church roof and more on other priorities.

It is why we support the work of the multi-faith Inner-Cities Religious Council, with full ministerial involvement, in developing your role in urban regeneration.

It is why we are pioneering a new Community Investment Tax Credit, to improve incentives for the private sector to support voluntary and faith-based community enterprise.

It is why we are glad to see the Local Government Association addressing the issue of faith group participation in locally funded voluntary activity, which we hope will lead to a strong endorsement of the further role you can play in partnership with local government.

To back this up we intend to pilot projects with local regeneration partnerships to see how obstacles to faith community involvement can be overcome in practice.

We are also glad to announce, after consultation with the churches and other faith communities, that a successor to the inter-faith Lambeth Group, set up to prepare for the Millennium, will now look at how government consults and interfaces with faith communities across the range of our shared interests. This has my personal backing, and we stand ready to give whatever support is necessary to the Group and the proposals it ultimately makes.

Let me end by returning to faith and values.

All your local and social activity is driven by your values and beliefs and the spiritual dimension of your faith.

In a world of uncertainty, rapid change and technological transformation, I believe these underpinning values are becoming more not less relevant. I spend a lot of my time visiting schools and talking to young people. I don’t find any shortage of ideals or values. On the contrary, as Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sachs put it recently, our teenagers are very much the ‘we’ generation, not the ‘me’ generation.

It is the ‘we generation’ that we want to shape tomorrow. And if we remain true to our values, they will have the opportunities and institutions to do so.