The Guardian reports that the Welsh Government and some Labour and Tory councils are preparing to fund food banks run by charities (usually religious groups) as a way of tackling cuts next year to the Social Fund (see story here).
Families facing extreme hardship who would previously have been able to apply for emergency aid to buy food, pay for fuel, etc. will instead be sent along to local voluntary groups.
Carmarthenshire County Council has been steadily moving down this route for some time. Former leader Meryl Gravell made no secret of her support for the "Big Society" as a way of reducing pressure on council budgets. Then as now Labour was in coalition with Meryl's Independents, and now that Carwyn Jones has apparently seen the light, we can expect an acceleration of religious outsourcing.
This week Ellen ap Gwynn, Plaid leader of Ceredigion, tweeted the link to the Guardian piece, an action which neatly encapsulated the differing attitudes of these neighbouring authorities on at least two levels. After all Kevin Madge, who believes that Twitter is dangerous, has consistently supported Big Society outsourcing in Carmarthenshire.
Not all voluntary groups are religious, of course, but certainly in Wales Christian groups play a very large role. The problem for government and the rest of us is how to tell the good ones from the others. Which ones can be trusted to give a decent, reliable service free from abuse, discrimination and other malpractice?
And there are just so many churches, sects, groups - whatever you want to call them. No matter how loopy or extreme, every Christian group describes itself as "mainstream". The Catholics, the Anglicans, the Methodists, the Independents, the Baptists, the Seventh Day Adventists, Pentecostalists and all of the many others claim to be mainstream, even though they are worlds apart in practice and belief.
The Catholics are pretty mainstream, but as an organisation the church has an appalling record of paedophile priests, cover-ups, sadistic nuns and monks entrusted with caring for children and vulnerable adults, financial scandals and breathtaking bigotry from members of the hierarchy. If you think that is all a thing of the past, take a look at the press in mainland Europe.
At the other end of the spectrum we have well-attested examples of brain-washing, psychological manipulation, financial scandals, fraudulent spiritual "healers", homophobia, ill-treatment of women, ostracisation, and so on.
Of course, mixed in with all this are countless decent church members, but the rotten apples are always there, and comings and goings mean that church membership is constantly changing. How is a council supposed to monitor that across every church or group it may be in partnership with?
As observers of this whacky scene know, many of these religious groups also have a chameleon like expertise when it comes to PR and media management. When Mercy Ministries came under fire for its emphasis on demonic possession, the organisation blandly announced that it was withdrawing the offending manuals and replacing them with new ones. The manuals remain secret.
And what are the motives of all of these voluntary groups? For the majority of rank and file members and volunteers it may be compassion, duty or love of humanity. But the suspicion always remains, particularly among the evangelical groups, that winning new recruits, "saving souls" or whatever you want to call it is what drives much of this activity, particularly in the higher levels of these organisations.
Last year Carmarthenshire County Council organised a Christmas toy box appeal. The council, police and other public bodies collected toys which were then passed on to a group which included three fundamentalist evangelical churches. Under the Equalities Act 2010 it should probably have carried out a kind of risk assessment to ensure that the churches would not discriminate or abuse their position. From a Freedom of Information request earlier this year we know that no such assessment was carried out.
The council is also, as we know, an enthusiastic supporter of Towy Community Church, and much praise has been lavished on the church's schemes for a food bank, furniture recycling centre and debt counselling service. Just as with the toyboxes, the council should almost certainly have carried out an assessment under the Equalities Act before committing almost £1.5m of public money to the church's schemes. It didn't.
The church's plans for the former St Ivel creamery in Johnstown include what the architects describe as a suite of counselling and therapy rooms. Therapy? Counselling?
The debt counselling plans help cast light on likely motivation. As this blog has asked before, what was wrong with existing voluntary groups, including the CAB (desperate for volunteers by the way) that made the church want to set up its own separate service? Why didn't it encourage its members to go along and join CAB instead?
As Caebrwyn discovered, Towy Community Church will be offering this service in partnership with a group called Christians Against Poverty which ran into a spot of bother with the national umbrella group Advice UK because its methods were "incompatible" with those of other Advice UK members (see article here). In plain terms, the Christian group saw debt counselling as an opportunity to evangelise.
Some councillors in Carmarthenshire appear to think that just because an organisation describes itself as Christian, that is good enough. Just close your eyes, and hope for the best.
Let's hope that the Welsh Government and our councils take a long, hard look at what they are getting themselves into before they dismantle care services and hand them over to these eager volunteers.