Do you want your public services run by churches?

The Government is planning to contract out more and more general public services to religious organisations but at the same time refuses to reform the law to prevent these organisations from discriminating on grounds of religion when they’re providing them. The British Humanist Association has also published a report on this (pdf) and I wrote a piece on it which appears on page 4 of The Guardian‘s Society supplement today and is now online.

In the welter of comment on public service reform, a dramatic change that has passed largely unnoticed is a massively increased role for religious organisations in the provision of statutory public services – an area of the welfare state that has long been secular.

In our new report, Quality and Equality, the British Humanist Association highlights the threats this entails. It is not just that Britain is overwhelmingly and increasingly non-religious, and that services provided this way present a total mismatch between policy and reality, but that the policy opens up severe gaps in legal protection for service users and employees, and threatens social cohesion in years to come.

The law protects workers from discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief. But equality law allows for religious organisations to claim exemptions from duties not to discriminate, and the TUC and others have cited concerns.

Pecan, a previous contractor with Jobcentre Plus, was heralded only this week by government as suitable to take on work with offenders. Pecan’s equal opportunities policy states that, “to maintain Pecan’s Christian distinctiveness to serve the aims and objectives of the charity”, it will only hire staff willing to sign up to the Evangelical Alliance “Basis of Faith”, regardless of the position they are applying for. In Scotland, CrossReach, with a budget of £45m largely from local authorities, requires serious Christian commitment from nearly all employees.

Public sector staff transferred  to organisations such as these will find their career prospects damaged unless, for example, they participate in prayer meetings at work and follow a religious lifestyle at home. Not everyone will be affected, but the government plainly wants religious organisations to take on large parts of Jobcentre Plus and of the National Offender Management Service, so tens of thousands of staff are at risk.

Service users too may suffer. Unlike citizens served directly by a public body, those receiving that same service from a religious organisation under contract are not legally protected against discrimination on grounds of religion or belief under the Equality Act 2006, nor do they have protection under the Human Rights Act for rights such as freedom of belief, privacy and sexual relationships.

Some religious organisations in the line up for contracts are explicit that they do not want to be bound by human rights law. The Salvation Army, which already delivers large parts of the welfare system in Australia, told parliament’s joint committee on human rights that “whilst it is appropriate for the state to be religiously neutral, this is impossible for an organisation such as the Salvation Army, which delivers its services as a direct outworking of the Christian faith.”

With no evidence to support its view, the government claims to believe that religious organisations add value and provide better outcomes, simply because they are religious. Yet their policy threatens to ringfence thousands of public service jobs for religious believers, just as one in three senior posts in schools are already ringfenced, and to undermine the rights of service users and employees.

Wholly secular public services are the best answer, but without it the law must be reformed to guarantee that all deliverers of public services are held to the same basic standards of equality and human rights.