Keep faith in religious providers, urges think tank Demos

Local authorities should use faith groups to deliver public services to achieve value for money, greater ‘social value’ and wider community benefits, argues a new report by Demos.

The report, Faithful Providers, finds that a ‘faith-service ethos’ amongst volunteers and staff can mean greater cost efficiencies for commissioning authorities.

Researchers found that religious beliefs motivated volunteers and staff to work long hours for little pay and to persevere over the challenges encountered when working with vulnerable people in their community.

Evidence also reveals that faith-based providers are highly effective in areas where a ‘spiritual’ or ‘holistic approach’ is beneficial, such as drug rehabilitation programmes.

As well as financial advantages, greater service provision from faith groups would foster stronger links between residents and local community organisations, and aid cohesion though greater co-operation between providers of different faiths.

This leads Demos to argue that funding for faith-based providers should be conditional on them working with organisations of different faiths to tackle local problems.

‘We are not here to convert’

Demos research shows many local authorities are not realising the benefits over fears that involving religious groups may lead to increased discrimination.

The report finds this fear is misplaced. Interviews with 20 faith-based providers found no evidence of aggressive proselytising, with the overwhelming majority providing services to community members of different and no faith. Those who worked with young people and vulnerable groups were particularly aware of the need to be inclusive.

Graham Fell, who works for Spacious Places - a faith-based, abstinence programme in Leeds that supports around 30 people a year, said “We are not here to convert or get you to church. Our sole goal is recovery”.

Similarly, a spokesperson for Yeldall Manor, a residential drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre in Reading, said: “We are open to people of any faith or none; it is up to them whether they take or leave the Christian element of the programme.”

Left out of the equation

The Government’s Open Public Services white paper sets out a clear goal to involve the charitable sector more in providing services. But faith-based providers are often left out of the equation, due to fears by local commissioners that those providing the services may attempt to convert service users, or may refuse to serve non-believers or those of other faiths.

Chris White MP, who tabled the private members bill that led to the Public Services (Social Value) Act, speaking last month in Parliament argued that the large size of many government contracts prevented smaller organisations from bidding for them.

He said: “Large contracts do not always lead to better outcomes, and can increase costs in the long term. Only a handful of organisations can bid for contracts of such size. More accessible contract sizes would go a long way to change the situation.”

Interfaith benefits

Demos’s research suggests that having faith-based providers tackle local social issues could also help achieve other goals such as greater interfaith dialogue and co-operation, particularly in areas with high levels of ethnic diversity.

Faithbook, an interfaith operation set up by Barnet Borough Council, promotes religious organisation’s activities to young people online. The project spurs more volunteers of different faiths to join projects they may have previously avoided or been unaware of, encouraging interaction between communities in the process.

In order for government and local authorities to see additional benefits from funding faith-based services, the Faithful Providers report recommends:

- Faith-based providers should be required to work with organisations of different faiths to tackle local problems, such as unemployment or alcohol, while also fostering greater integration.

- Faith-motivated organisations should be supported in providing services where a ‘’spiritual’ or ‘holistic’ approach appears effective – for example drug and rehabilitation programmes.

- Faith-based providers should be better integrated into the Government’s Work Programme and Drugs Strategy. While, large private companies such as G4S and Serco do sub-contract work, Demos saw no evidence of highly effective small-scale faith-based providers being incorporated.

- Government and local authorities should look beyond just efficiency savings and consider additional social values when commissioning public service providers.

Jonathan Birdwell, author of the report and Head of the Citizens Programme at Demos said:

“In an era of fiscal austerity, the third sector needs to play a vital role in the provision of services, particularly to the most vulnerable members of society. This research clearly dispels the myth that all faith-based service providers are only interested in preaching, or helping those who match their particular creed. 

“Government and local authorities can’t afford to be squeamish about the religious aspect of faith-motivated services. Unlike large private companies who are interested in generating profit and have little connection to local communities, faith-based service providers are often long-standing pillars in their communities and the ‘social glue’ that holds Britain together.

“If Government and local authorities are serious about fostering a greater sense of community and interfaith dialogue then they should practise what they preach and support faith-based service delivery.”

ENDS

 

NOTES TO EDITORS

The Faithful Providers report presents findings from our research on 20 different case studies of faith-motivated service providers across four policy areas: employment and training, work with young people, integration and community cohesion, and drugs and alcohol rehabilitation. 

The report, Faithful Providers, by Jonathan Birdwell is published by Demos on 20 January 2013. It can be downloaded here: http://www.demos.co.uk/publications/faithfulproviders

This research was supported by the Bill Hill Trust. 

This is the second report in a Demos project looking at the role of faith, and faith-based organisations in society. The advisory board for Demos’s Faith & Society project includes Stephen Timms MP, Lord Maurice Glasman and Sir Trevor Chinn. For more information on the project see: http://www.demos.co.uk/projects/faithfulcitizensdemosinquiryintofaithandsociety 

The report’s author, Jonathan Birdwell, is available for further comment or interview.

MEDIA CONTACT

Rob Macpherson
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