James Somerville-Meikle: Cameron’s big idea may be out of fashion. But as we emerge from Covid, it’s badly needed.

4 Jul

James Somerville-Meikle is Head of Public Affairs at the Catholic Union of Great Britain.

“There is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state.” Those words from David Cameron after becoming Conservative Party leader in 2005 formed the basis for what would become his policy of the Big Society.

The Conservative leader was speaking not long after Tony Blair had won his third successive general election. Labour were looking tired in government, and falling back on pulling various levers of state control in response to the mounting problems facing the country.

Cameron’s message was simple – it was time to create space for people to help shape the world around them and empower civil society to respond to society’s challenges. It’s a message we could do with hearing again as we recover from Covid.

Revisiting ideas from the Cameron era might not be the most fashionable thing to do in Conservative circles right now, but the need for a Big Society seems clearer than ever.

The pandemic has left a new high-water mark of state control. The Government borrowed £300 billion last financial year – mostly in response to Covid and lockdown support, including the furlough scheme which at one time was paying the wages of almost one in three workers across the UK.

This intervention was badly needed, and has helped struggling businesses and families keep their heads above water. But while the pandemic has shown what the state can do, it has also highlighted its limits. Government cash has often needed to be combined with the work of voluntary groups for it to be truly effective.

Nowhere is this better seen than in efforts to support the homeless during the pandemic. Churches in London played a crucial role in identifying those at risk and supporting people who fell through the cracks of the Government’s Everyone In scheme. A refreshment hub for the homeless has been run by a group of London churches in Trafalgar Square throughout the pandemic.

The response from civil society to Covid has been just as impressive as anything the Government has managed to achieve. The “little platoons” which Edmund Burke used to describe the importance of family, community, and place have been seen once again in the army of volunteers who have helped us through the pandemic with countless acts of kindness.

The role of faith groups has been particularly important. Churches often know the needs in their community better than anyone and can reach people that government services struggle to connect with. A recent report from the University of York on the importance of churches to their communities, found that 87 per cent of churches regularly contacted the isolated.

As we recover from the pandemic, there needs to be a much greater focus on the role of civil society in tackling local problems and a stronger emphasis on encouraging partnership between government and the voluntary sector. This is badly needed if manifesto commitments like ending rough sleeping by 2024 are going to be delivered.

While measures in the Queen’s Speech to reduce bureaucracy on charities and free up dormant assets are welcome, this is the moment for bolder action to unleash the power of civil society in the wake of the pandemic. The lack of reference to society in the Queen’s Speech is a worrying sign that we risk falling back into a statist mindset where only the Government can solve the challenges we face.

There is no shortage of ideas for how we can realise the potential of civil society. Danny Kruger’s excellent report on levelling up our communities is a good place to start. It includes plans for a Community Power Act to give local people power over the design and delivery of public services, as well as a New Deal for faith communities, which would see a greater role for faith groups in meeting social challenges.

There are also more immediate steps the Government could take to support civil society. The £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund was launched earlier this year, with the ministerial foreword stating that this will be used to “empower places to explore how best to tackle local challenges”. Despite the obvious contribution that churches and other places of worship could make, there is no mention of faith groups in the prospectus for the Fund.

The guidance notes on the Covid Local Support Grant for local authorities to support struggling families are also silent on faith groups. And yet if the Government wants to get support to where it is most needed, then it should be encouraging councils to work with local churches who are running food banks or mosques that are running support networks.

That is not to say that local authorities are currently prevented from working with faith groups. There are examples of local councils already partnering successfully with faith groups – including on projects like Family Hubs which help to integrate services for parents and children.

A clearer steer from central Government would provide assurance to more councils about the benefits of working with faith groups and encourage more of this partnering work across the country. That’s why the Catholic Union has called for better guidance for local authorities when it comes to working with faith groups. As Pope Benedict XVI said in his Westminster Hall speech in September 2010: “Religion is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation.”

Cameron realised that his vision of the Big Society would not simply happen by the Government stepping back – it needed active encouragement and engagement with civil society. It led to the passing of the Localism Act 2011, which helped create new opportunities for local power and responsibility in the wake of the financial crisis.

Ten years on and we face the task of recovery from another crisis. Boris Johnson has the chance to complete the transformation of social policy which Cameron started by putting society at the heart of our plans for recovery. The Prime Minister will need the help of civil society for his vision of levelling up communities across the country.

The pandemic has shown what can be achieved by faith groups partnering with national and local government. As the full impact of Covid on our country is realised, we should avoid the temptation of looking to Whitehall for answers and instead look to our communities. Now is the moment to unleash the power of civil society.

James Somerville-Meikle: Sunak should make supporting families a priority in his Budget

25 Feb

James Somerville-Meikle is Head of Public Affairs at the Catholic Union.

The economic cost of this pandemic is all too clear for many. But personal finances and household budgets are not the only things feeling the strain.

For some people, this past year has pushed relationships to their limits – with more time spent at home, greater stresses and anxieties, and an emotional cost impossible to calculate.

Among the alarming reports and grim statistics of the past year, the increase in people seeking divorce guidance from Citizens Advice and law firms reporting an increase in divorce applications should be some of the most worrying signs of the long-term impact of this virus.

As the Chancellor prepares to deliver his Budget next month, the state of people’s marriages might not be foremost on his mind, but there are good reasons why Rishi Sunak should make supporting families a priority.

In 2016, the Relationships Foundation estimated that the cost of family breakdown to the taxpayer – the various extra costs of supporting single parents and managing the fallout from relationship breakdown – was £48 billion. A figure that is sadly likely to be even higher in the wake of the pandemic.

While money alone cannot and should not be enough to keep a marriage together, a greater focus on how the tax and benefit system can support families is long overdue and is needed now more than ever.

Government spending has tended to focus on picking up the pieces from relationship breakdown, rather than supporting the family unit in the first place. If the Chancellor wants to avoid spiralling welfare spending as a legacy of the pandemic, then the Treasury needs to look more closely at the tax burden faced by families not just individuals.

One of the most pressing questions facing the Chancellor is the future of the £20 per week uplift to Universal Credit and tax credits. The policy has helped millions through the pandemic, but it has cost billions – £6.1 billion according to the Office for Budget Responsibility.

The temporary change has meant that someone on the basic rate of Universal Credit over the past year has received an extra £1,040 than they would have done without the uplift (an increase of 29 per cent on the pre-pandemic rate).

It’s a testament to the extraordinary times we live in that this hike in payments barely made the news when it was announced in March last year, but it is certainly making headlines now that the end of the year-long extension is in sight.

In some ways perhaps this was inevitable. Once something is given – no matter how temporary – it is hard to take away. People who have felt the benefit of the higher rate of payments will also feel the loss if and when they come to an end.

The challenge facing the Chancellor is how to avoid one of the biggest and most generous changes to social security in our history ending up looking like daylight robbery.

The £20 uplift has undoubtedly helped to get more money to some of the people most in need during the pandemic. But the problem with making changes to the basic rate of Universal Credit and tax credits is that everyone is treated the same, regardless of who they are or their circumstances. A working mum with three children gets the same benefit from an extra £20 a week through tax credits as a single man with no children.

If the Chancellor is looking for a way to rebalance welfare spending in the wake of the pandemic, then a more targeted approach, focusing on support for families and those with childcare responsibilities seems like an obvious solution. It would also be a big step towards delivering the manifesto commitment of making Britain the greatest place in the world to start a family.

There are oven-ready policies that the Chancellor could introduce in his Budget that would help families, and arguably be a greater help to children in the long term than the £20 uplift.

Perhaps the most obvious option would be to scrap the two-child cap on the childcare element of Universal Credit and tax credits. The policy was introduced in the Budget in 2015 and meant that from April 2017, support provided to families through Universal Credit or tax credits would be limited to the first two children.

The Child Poverty Action Group estimated in April 2020 that 230,000 families had been affected by the policy, and that an additional 60,000 families could be affected as a result of the pandemic. The policy has been roundly criticised by faith groups, including the Catholic Church, The Muslim Council of Britain, and Board of Deputies of British Jews, on account of its discriminatory approach to larger families.

The justification for the policy was that parents claiming Universal Credit or tax credits should face the same choices about the number of children they can afford as those supporting themselves solely through work. But the economic crisis caused by the pandemic has shown how quickly families can fall into difficulty. Even in normal times, no parent can be sure that their financial security will withstand unpredictable events such as illness, death, or redundancy.

Another possible source of inspiration for the Chancellor could be moving towards fully transferable personal allowances. Currently, 10 per cent of the current personal allowance of £12,500 is transferable between couples. Going further and making personal allowances fully transferable would remove the tax penalty suffered by single earner couples and help families keep more of the money they earn.

A fully transferable personal allowance would not be cheap. David Goodhart estimated in 2016 that the cost to the Treasury would be in the region of £5 billion – a significant amount of money, but still less expensive than the £6 billion cost of maintaining the uplift in Universal Credit and tax credits.

The Chancellor could also look at increasing child benefit, which has been largely frozen since 2010. The Child Poverty Action Group has estimated that increasing child benefit by just £10 per week would reduce child poverty by 450,000 as well as helping to stimulate the economy to recover from the pandemic.

There are options available to the Chancellor for this Budget and the rest of this Parliament to create a tax and benefit system that finally supports the family unit. The pandemic has shown the importance of having strong families alongside a social security system for those who need it.

Helping families keep more of the money they earn will not solve all of their problems, but it would certainly help. Let’s use this moment to build back better for families.

James Somerville-Meikle: The Conservative Party and the Catholic community can find much common ground

22 Jan

James Somerville-Meikle is a committee member of Catholics in the Conservative Party.

As the dust settled on post war Britain, Winston Churchill asked Sir Hugh Fraser, then MP for Stafford, to help get more Catholics involved in the Conservative Party.

Sir Hugh was one of a tiny number of Catholic Conservative MPs in the post-war Parliament. Things have got better since then, but it’s fair to say there is room for improvement in relations between the Conservative Party and the Catholic community in this country.

It’s perhaps fitting that as our country, and our Party, begins the task of rebuilding from the pandemic – arguably the greatest challenge faced since the second world war – there is renewed energy in making the Conservative Party a home for Catholics.

Almost 70 years since Churchill identified the problem, this month sees the inaugural AGM of a new group for Catholics in the Conservative Party. It’s a grassroots group – set up by people who want to build bridges between their faith and politics.

There are many reasons why it makes sense to improve relations with the 4.5 million Catholics in Britain, but perhaps the most obvious is that there is a great deal of overlap between the teachings of our Church and the values of our Party – something that should be promoted. On top of this, the Catholic church continues to have an active role in providing services, not least running ten per cent of schools in England.

Catholic Social Teaching is a treasure trove for policy-makers with its focus on the part each person can play in building the common good. But this has too often been a treasure trove raided by the Left rather than the Right in this country.

It’s not that long ago that there were some parts of the country where the Labour parliamentary candidate almost had to be a Catholic, and the role of people like Cardinal Manning – who famously supported the London dockers strike in 1889 – was a celebrated part of Labour’s folk law.

And yet the appeals to individual responsibility, compassion, and the dignity of people, contained in Catholic Social Teaching are themes that also fit within Conservative thinking. It’s this centre-right interpretation of the common good that has inspired groups like the Centre for Social Justice, founded by Iain Duncan Smith – one of our most prominent Catholic MPs.

Of course, even amongst Conservatives, there will be disagreement about how the teachings of the Church can best be put into practice. Part of the thinking behind this new group is to provide a place to have these discussions. There are no right or wrong answers. You will find committed Catholics on every wing of the Party and every level of government. We want to bring together Conservatives who are committed to bringing about the common good, whoever they are and whatever their background.

Sometimes just having the conversation can be helpful. Labour, with its tradition of Christian socialism, perhaps has a head start on us in this regard. Countless words have been written about how Christianity can be put into practice on the Left of politics, which has helped to raise the profile for a particular brand of left-wing thinking in the Catholic church.

We have some catching up to do, but the foundations are there. Whether it’s the role of figures like the Duke of Wellington and Robert Peel in bringing about Catholic emancipation in this country or the work of David Burrowes and Tim Montgomerie in founding the Conservative Christian Fellowship – we have our own story to tell, but sometimes we’re not very good at telling it.

Our new group not only aims to strengthen links between Catholics already in the Party, but also make it more appealing to Catholics who don’t see the Conservative Party as their natural home.

For some people, getting involved in the local church can be the first step into politics, but Conservatives have been slow to recognise the potential of Catholic churches to produce leaders of the future. How many church readers or parish council members are there in this country who would make fantastic Conservative candidates for local council, devolved bodies, or Parliament? But we don’t ask them and perhaps our Party has not always looked that welcoming.

There has perhaps never been a better time to improve relations with the Catholic community in this country. A quick look at the electoral map shows the areas where the Conservatives gained seats in 2019 – the North West and North East of England – are also places where the Catholic church in this country has traditionally been strongest. It’s encouraging that two of the parliamentary patrons for Catholics in the Conservative Party – Alexander Stafford and Marco Longhi – are from the 2019 intake who won their seats from Labour.

If we want to maintain the trust of voters in these areas, it will mean getting under the bonnet of what makes people in these communities tick. In places like Blaydon in Gateshead, where my Grandma lives, the local church is an important part of the local community. These are often the places where the values of “faith, flag and family” remain strong as David Goodhart described in his book The Road to Somewhere.

At a time when the importance of culture and identity in politics only seems to be getting stronger, we ignore people’s values at our peril. At the next election we will face a smarter challenge from Labour. I’ve lost track of the number of times Sir Keir Starmer has mentioned “family” recently – framing his latest free school meals intervention as an attack on the Conservative’s record on support for families. We need to get smarter too.

That is not to say our Party needs to become Catholic to maintain the ground we have gained. I don’t expect to see the Vatican flag flying from CCHQ anytime soon! But it should make us more prepared to listen and engage with the Catholic community in this country. We might be surprised by the amount of common ground we find.

The Conservative Party has made great strides in recent years engaging with groups that are under-represented in politics – particularly women and people from black and ethnic minorities. If this new group can harness some of that energy and enthusiasm for outreach work with the Catholic community, which itself is extremely diverse, then there could be benefits for everyone. Our Party has always been at its best when it is a broad church, in every sense.

Perhaps, as Churchill would say, the relationship between Catholics and the Conservative Party is only at the end of the beginning.

James Somerville-Meikle: Religious services are essential for many people; the Government must not stop them again.

9 Nov

James Somerville-Meikle is Head of Public Affairs at the Catholic Union.

To ban religious services once could be seen as unfortunate. To ban them twice in a year looks like carelessness.

Unlike Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, this is sadly not a comedy.

The Government has once again prohibited religious services in England as part of its second national lockdown. While places of worship can still open for private prayer, religious services are banned until December 2.

Something that seemed unthinkable at the beginning of the year has now happened twice. We must not allow it to happen again.

While closing places of worship in the first lockdown was extremely painful, it was understood that we faced an unknown virus and the priority was to protect the NHS and save lives. We now know significantly more about this virus and how to control it.

If you’ve been into any church since the summer, you will have probably encountered an army of masked cleaners with disinfectant spray, one-way systems, and people collecting contact details for NHS Test and Trace. The efforts of thousands of volunteers across the country have made churches, and other places of worship, examples of how to make public buildings Covid-secure.

This has given faith leaders confidence to speak out against the ban. Cardinal Vincent Nichols, leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, spoke of the “deep anguish” felt by Catholics at seeing churches closed for services. A feeling shared by many other people of faith.

The decision was also criticised by many MPs and peers during the limited time for debate on the regulations in Parliament. Edward Leigh MP, the Catholic Union President, described “outlawing religious services” as a “disproportionate response to the pandemic”.

Outlawing religious services – taking away a basic pillar of religious freedom – is a grave intrusion into our fundamental human rights. It should never become an acceptable response to the challenges we face, particularly not for a Conservative government.

Talk of “outlawing” religious services is no exaggeration. The Government is not simply asking Christians to stop attending church, or suggesting to Jewish people that they should stay away from synagogues, or encouraging Hindus and Sikhs to give up Diwali celebrations. It is forcing them to do this by using the law.

Of course, it’s not just faith groups who are affected by these restrictions. Daily life has become harder for almost every person in England and had consequences for people across the United Kingdom. Millions are worried about their jobs or businesses. There are a growing number of people in need as a result of this pandemic, and faith groups are often on the frontline in providing help.

People of faith are not asking for special treatment, but for religious services to be treated like other services deemed essential for health and wellbeing. It’s an important test of whether we understand the importance of faith to people’s lives and whether we’re prepared to reflect that in policy.

The new restrictions are significantly different to the full lockdown earlier in the year, in many ways for the better. More institutions are considered to be providing essential services, including schools and universities. A greater number of shops have been given essential status, including garden centres. And there will be far more essential journeys, with people encouraged to go to work if they cannot work from home.

The decision to label more aspects of life as “essential” under the new restrictions may help to avoid the social and economic trauma of a full lockdown. But it has also led to the Government straying into difficult territory by determining what is and isn’t essential in our lives – something which is generally best left to people to decide.

Excluding religious services from this list sends a message to faith groups that collective worship is deemed unnecessary.

This was not helped by the Prime Minister failing to mention places of worship in his speech on October 31. People were left to check on the Government’s website to see how the new restrictions would impact their churches, synagogues, and mosques. For the millions of people for whom prayer and worship is the rhythm of their lives, this omission will have been noted.

It shows that once again the “religious literacy” of those making decisions needs to be improved. A good start would be giving more clout to the Faith Taskforce, which was set up by Robert Jenrick, the Communities Secretary, to advise on reopening places of worship after the last lockdown.

The ban on religious services is particularly frustrating given the lack of evidence for the decision. Are people really more at risk of catching the virus in a socially distanced church service than they are in a garden centre or lecture theatre? Or for that matter is a church used for praying more of a public health risk than a church used for worship?

When pushed for evidence on the spread of the virus in places of worship, Patrick Vallance, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, told the Commons Science and Technology Committee: “I don’t think we have good data to answer that with any degree of certainty.”

Had any evidence existed, the response from faith leaders would have been very different. People of faith have shown they are just as prepared as anyone to make sacrifices in the national interest. Closing places of worship was accepted earlier this year, while energy was focused on maintaining the services they run – such as food banks and bereavement support groups. Given the lack of evidence for the current ban, faith leaders have every right to complain.

Controlling the second wave of the virus was perhaps always going to be harder than the first. If there’s one thing worse than not having evidence, it’s being faced with a huge body of evidence and needing to make tough decisions.

Increasingly it seems that policy priorities are shaping the Government’s response to the pandemic, just as much as science and evidence. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it means we need to get our priorities right. Policies that allow people to go to a garden centre on a Sunday morning, but not church, suggests that a rethink is required.

Over the next few weeks, difficult decisions will need to be made once again about the way out of lockdown. Above all, this will be a test of what we value. The Government should listen to our country’s faith leaders who have called for places of worship to reopen fully in light of their essential nature.

Banning religious services must not become part of the “new normal.”

James Somerville-Meikle: The SNP’s overhaul of hate crime legislation is a threat to freedom of expression in Scotland

7 Aug

James Somerville-Meikle is Head of Public Affairs at the Catholic Union of Great Britain.

What do Catholic Bishops and the National Secular Society have in common?

Despite their different world views, they have found common ground in opposing the SNP’s overhaul of hate crime legislation – which both groups fear will damage freedom of expression in Scotland.

The Scottish Government’s Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill was introduced earlier this year with the aim of helping to “build community cohesion”. It has proved more effective than Scottish Ministers could ever have imagined. Most of civil society in Scotland is now united in opposition to the Bill.

A recent consultation by Holyrood’s Justice Committee revealed the full extent of this opposition – which goes well beyond the usual nationalist critics. The Society of Scottish Newspapers, the Law Society of Scotland, and the Scottish Police Federation, have all publicly called for a rethink from the Scottish Government.

A new campaign group – Free to Disagree – has started to oppose the Bill, led by former SNP Deputy Leader Jim Sillars, the National Secular Society, and the Christian Institute. To have brought together such a diverse range of opponents is a pretty impressive achievement by the SNP’s Justice Secretary, Humza Yousaf.

But it’s the criticism from the Scottish Catholic Bishops which is perhaps the most striking.

In their submission to the Justice Committee, the Bishops warn that “a new offence of possessing inflammatory material could even render material such as the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church… inflammatory.”

Let’s be clear what this means – the Catholic Church, which counts around 700,000 followers in Scotland, is worried that legislation currently being considered by the Scottish Parliament could make expressing their beliefs a criminal offence.

The Bishops acknowledge their concerns are based on a “low threshold” interpretation of the proposed new offence. But the fact that such concerns exist at all is extraordinary.

Catholic Bishops in Scotland choose their battles carefully – conscious of a public sphere that does not take kindly to lectures from Bishops. The strength of their public comments shows just how much concern there is about the Bill. It’s also perhaps a sign they think this is one area where they might be able to force a change of approach from the Scottish Government.

The Bill would also introduce a new offence of “stirring up hatred” against certain groups, even if a person making the remarks had not intended any offence.

Currently in Scotland, the offence of “stirring up hatred” only applies in respect of race, but this would be expanded under the Bill to include “age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity, and variation in sex characteristics.”

This huge expansion of the law is not combined with any definition of what “stirring up hatred” means. The Bill’s Explanatory Notes say that an offence could be committed through “behaviour of any kind”, which “may consist of a single act or a course of conduct.” In other words, pretty much anything could constitute an offence.

Crucially, criminal behaviour under the new law would be based on offence caused, rather than intended – a significant difference to England and Wales where intent is required for a person to be criminalised for behaviour which someone finds insulting. As a result, it risks creating a situation in which offending becomes an offence.

It’s little wonder that police officers, lawyers, and journalists are deeply worried about the proposals. The Bill paints broad brush strokes and leaves others to work out the picture. The task of interpreting a law where offences are not wholly within your control but based on how others perceive your words and actions, is fraught with perils.

Catholic Bishops fear this could lead to a “deluge of vexatious claims”. The Scottish Police Federation warns it could mean officers “determining free speech”, leading to a breakdown in relations with the public. And the Law Society of Scotland raised concerns that “certain behaviour, views expressed or even an actor’s performance, which might well be deemed insulting or offensive, could result in a criminal conviction under the terms of the bill as currently drafted.” Not exactly the cohesive society envisaged by the Scottish Government.

At the heart of this debate is a fundamental question about what a cohesive and tolerant society looks like. Does tolerance require conformity and removing any possible source of offence? Or does it mean accepting and respecting difference of opinion within certain red lines?

To use No 10’s language – it’s a question of whether we level up or level down when it comes to freedom of expression. In the case of the SNP’s proposals, it looks like a race to the bottom.

This is not an enviable position. As Stephen Evans from the National Secular Society points out:

“Freedom to say only what others find acceptable is no freedom at all.”

There is still time for the Scottish Government to reconsider its approach. Most of the groups opposed to the Bill, including the Catholic Bishops, agree that stirring up hatred is wrong, and would welcome an update to hate crime legislation. But the current approach is not working and Scottish Ministers must realise that.

Creating a catch-all offence, and passing the buck to the police and courts, is not the way forward. It’s sloppy law-making, and risks threatening the vibrancy and diversity of life in Scotland.

The publication of the Bill has shown that people with completely different views are capable of respecting one another, and even working together for a common cause.

What unites religious and secular voices is a belief in freedom of expression. This must be upheld, or we will all suffer as a result.