Daily Telegraph, 22 April 2014
The Prime Minister hasn’t thought through the consequences of offering privileged access and public funds to Christian groups, argues Joan Smith. Many non-religious organisations helping domestic violence and sex trafficking victims will miss out
Does it matter if the Prime Minister welcomes leaders of Christian organisations into Number 10 Downing Street? He is a Christian himself and it isn’t as if he doesn’t invite other ‘faith’ groups to mark religious festivals. But wait: when David Cameron welcomed prominent Christians into his official residence, he went much further than celebrating a set of shared beliefs. He made promises which will affect the lives of people who weren’t present and don’t share those beliefs. Many of them, I’m sorry to say, are likely to be women who find themselves in dreadful circumstances.
I’m thinking about women fleeing violent marriages and victims of sex trafficking. In the recent past, a wide range of organisations existed to help them, and religious belief played a small part or none at all in the services they offered. Many of them received public funding, either from local councils or central government, but George Osborne’s austerity measures means that funding has been slashed. On a typical day in 2011, Women’s Aid was forced by lack of funds to turn away 230 women seeking refuge from a violent husband or partner.
There is no doubt that these services are needed more than ever. So who is going to provide them as one NGO after another reduces its services or closes down? Over to the Prime Minister, speaking at his Easter reception for Christians less than two weeks ago. Cameron declared that he wanted to “expand the role of faith and faith organisations in our country”. He went on: “And if there are blockages, if there are things that are stopping you doing more, think of me if you like as a sort of giant Dyno-Rod in Whitehall: I want to make it easier, I want to unblock the things that help you do what you do.”
We already have an example of the kind of thing he has in mind. Until 2011, an organisation called the Poppy Project received government funding for the fantastic work it carried out with women who had been rescued from sex-trafficking gangs; many of these women were deeply traumatised and suffering from STDs, and some had become pregnant against their will. Between 2003 and 2011, Poppy received almost 1,900 referrals, housed 334 women and supported another 449. Its work in the field received international recognition.
In 2011, the government cut its funding to the Poppy Project. It awarded the contract for looking after victims of sex-trafficking to the Salvation Army, an evangelical Christian organisation whose stated purpose is ‘helping individuals to develop and grow in their personal relationship with God’. I doubt whether this is a top priority for women rescued from months or years of sexual violence, some of whom may belong to other religions. It’s also worth pointing out that the Salvation Army opposes abortion except in cases of foetal abnormality or where the mother’s life is at stake.
This is just one example of public funds being diverted from a secular provider to a Christian organisation. Many of these organisations are likely have a traditional view of the sanctity of marriage, yet it is vital for the safety of women and children that they are helped to leave abusive relationships. The most charitable explanation of Cameron’s behaviour is that he hasn’t thought through the consequences of offering privileged access and public funds to Christian organisations.
The conflict between modern notions of equality and a traditional Christian view of gender roles can’t just be wished away. In the rarefied atmosphere of Downing Street, promising to give Christian organisations privileged access to ministers and public funds may sound benign. But the impact on women and girls, in the real world, may turn out to be dire.
Joan Smith is a novelist, journalist and human rights activist, who can be found blogging at www.politicalblonde.com and tweeting @polblonde.She is also one of the signatories to the letter, printed in the Daily Telegraph on April 20, warning that the prime minister foster division by calling Britain a ‘Christian country’.
UPDATE – April 23, 18:33
A spokesman for the Salvation Army said: “We were awarded the contract in an open tendering process because the Home Office/ Ministry of Justice felt we were able to do the job delivering the contract across England and Wales. Plus, we were able to support female and male victims of trafficking (around 40 per cent of the victims of trafficking are male), whilst the organisation who previously held the contract only cared for women.
“To deliver this contract we work with partner organisations – some faith-based, others not, and we respect and support everyone who comes to us no matter what their background or religion. Our positional statements, such as the one referred to on abortion, are ethical guidelines for our church members and we do not impose these views on those we serve.”