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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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A Hidden Majority

Monday, July 3, 2006

At a conference held by the Inter Faith Network for the UK Meg made the following remarks. For further details of the Network visit:

http://www.interfaith.org.uk/index.htm

 

I am pleased to be here this afternoon, to talk to people of faith about the Government’s plans, and to take questions about them.

 

But first an interesting fact - the 2001 census showed that 76% of people in the UK identified themselves as having a religion. That is not the perception that you might get from scanning the media - it could be said that people of faith are somewhat of a hidden majority!

 

A Multi-Faith Society

Government recognises that Britain is a multi-faith society as much as a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural one.  Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs and others form sizable minorities alongside the majority Christian faith.

 

We acknowledge the important role that faith communities up and down the country play in public life.  The contribution they make to social cohesion through the instilling and application of values that help underpin citizenship - ethical behaviour, respect for others, and community solidarity. Their places of worship often used as community centres, providing services to members of their own faith as well as the wider community.

 

But we don’t just acknowledge the contributions made to public life by faith communities. We are aware of the particular needs of faith communities, the challenges they face in society. For example, we have to ensure that services are tailored in a way that respects how differences in belief influence people’s diet and attire. 

 

By respecting our religious differences we can engage with each other as fellow human beings, the better to move toward an inclusive society. All of us - central and local Government, public services, the voluntary sector, business, local communities - have a role in helping Britain become more a country of social equality and community

 

As part of that aim we are committed to engaging with all faith communities. We want to ensure that members of all faiths, and none, enjoy the same life opportunities. We will work with people who have different beliefs but shared values, to work together towards common goals.

 

Discrimination and extremism of whatever kind have to be acknowledged and confronted. Our communities cannot be safe, cannot be integrated, if these evils are left to fester and grow.

 

Supporting Communities

Our aim is to build social cohesion, to support communities making this a reality on the ground. Our strategy to increase race equality and community cohesion, Improving Opportunity, Strengthening Society, brings practical measures across Government to improve opportunities for all in Britain. It can help to ensure that a person’s ethnicity, faith or race is not a barrier to their success.

 

There are three ways success can be judged:

  • we have a Government target to reduce race inequality and improve community cohesion and progress will be monitored against that, 
  • we will publish an annual review of progress against the commitments in the strategy, and
  • our success will be judged by the difference it makes to peoples’ lives - stronger communities in a more inclusive society.

 

The values and activities that underpin good citizenship, altruism, respect for others, ethical behaviour and community solidarity, all are found in faith communities. They contribute to social and community cohesion. So, it makes sense for us to talk with faith communities, to have a dialogue about policies and projects we develop. Our outreach programme will over the course of this year be engaging with faith communities in local communities, supporting their contribution to integration and cohesion and building communication with hard to reach groups - in particular women and young people

 

Communication and Practical Help

We have regular contact between representatives of the main faith communities and Ministers and senior officials. We also have a network of officials in local authorities in touch with most faith communities in order to support and spread good practice.

 

The new ‘Faith Communities Consultative Council’ has recently been established to create a new and streamlined structure for Government to consult and get feedback from representatives of faith communities. Brian Pearce is a founding member. It is chaired by my ministerial colleague, Phil Woolas, and has brought together the ODPM led ‘Inner Cities Religious Council’ and the Home Office led ‘Working Together Steering Group’.

 

The new council will address the issues of cohesion and integration, as well as discussing broader Government policy impacting on faith communities. It will monitor and set standards for consultation and cooperation between Government departments and faith communities, identifying and sharing good practice. An important job will be looking for issues that are likely to emerge, and discussing what policy approaches might be adapted.

 

Our ‘Faiths Community Capacity Building Fund’ will continue to support a diverse range of community initiatives for building capacity, and creating trust and understanding between different faith groups. This building of trust, at both local and national level, is essential for the future.

 

The fund gives an equal opportunity to local inter faith bodies, and local faith based organisations wishing to work together. Arms length distribution of the fund has ensured that the bidding process is as fair and as transparent as possible. We do, of course, sponsor the Inter Faith Network to strengthen and increase inter-faith co-operation and activity at local, regional and national levels.

 

Inter faith work plays a major role in sustaining good relations between faith communities.  The development of inter faith activity is increasingly important since the 7th July bombings last year. We acknowledge the positive work currently being done by local inter faith bodies to promote community cohesion, and we are keen to explore how this can be improved.

 

As part of the Government reshuffle in May the Prime Minister announced the creation of the new Department for Communities and Local Government - or what we call it, DeCLOG! This department now has responsibility for the Race, Cohesion and Faiths Directorate that was formerly within the remit of the Home Office. It also includes responsibility for women and equality, which is my particular role, and community cohesion, which really bring it all together. Bringing these different strands into one department, with one group of Ministers, should help in developing policies to tackle the inequalities in society.

 

Breadth of the Agenda

Faith communities bring a richness and diversity to our society.  Their willingness to participate in the Government’s aim of building a more inclusive integrated society, where barriers to social advancement are dismantled, is indeed encouraging.

 

The presence here of people from national and local inter faith organisations and educational bodies, as well as national faith community organisations, underlines the breadth of the agenda that the Inter Faith Network has. I am confident that the Inter Faith Network  will continue to be an effective channel for building lasting partnerships and towards building a more progressive and cohesive society. We are pleased that for the last five years we have been able to offer financial support to help the Network develop.

 

The UK is the only EU member state to have a broad national inter faith linking structure of this kind. It is an important contributor to helping develop community cohesion. I really think that if the Inter Faith Network didn’t exist we would have to invent it!

 

Thank you.


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