Surely local authorities would not deliberately set out to discriminate on the grounds of race, sexuality and religion, or disregard the rights of disabled people, women and others? Perhaps not, but then as most of us will have discovered at some point, government, whether local or national, is frequently pretty stupid and lacking in basic common sense and the ability to think very far ahead.
A good example of this came just last week, when Carmarthenshire County Council which has recently been boasting about some quango awards for its social care, was criticised in a damning report (here) by the Public Services Ombudsman and ordered to pay £3,000 in compensation for its treatment of a disabled man.
As the council's own report on the Equalities Act states, the law requires local authorities to consider what the effects of their policies and activities will mean to all sorts of different people, and to ensure that policies and the delivery of services do not discriminate on the grounds of sex, religion, race, etc. Here is a key passage:
Assessments are required of ‘policies’ which is understood broadly to embrace the full range of functions, activities (including service delivery) and decisions for which the council is responsible. This includes both current policies and new policies under development.
Recently the council received a Freedom of Information request for the assessments carried out ahead of the council's decision to launch its Christmas toy box appeal (toys collected by the council, police and other agencies were handed over to 4 selected independent evangelical groups for distribution to the public) and its decision to give a £1.4m package of financial aid to Towy Community Church for a bowling alley.
The response came back that no such information was held, meaning in plain English that no assessments were carried out - contrary to the requirements of the law.
This matters because religious groups of all shades and colours have a long history of discrimination, abuse and even outright persecution of those they don't like or who simply have the misfortune to be entrusted into their care.
Did the four evangelical groups give the council any undertakings on how the toys would be distributed? How did they know who to give the toys to? Were deserving families from backgrounds the evangelicals might disapprove of put off from asking for help? We do not know.
The grants, loans and other aid given to Towy Community Church were defended by quite a few councillors on the grounds that the church would also be operating a furniture recycling centre, a debt counselling service and a food bank. Phase II of the project will involve building an auditorium which will double up as a church.
Cllr Gwynne Wooldridge, executive member responsible for education and the official "Younger Person's Champion", even went so far as to say in the debate on the bowling alley that "there is only one important book - the Bible". Good to know that our schools are in such sensible hands.
No assessment of equalities issues has been made despite very large sums of public money being poured into the venture. The debt counselling service, for example, will be run on "Christian principles". Caebrwyn has pointed out that this means that people seeking help are likely to be "invited" to join church volunteers in prayer as a part of the service.
There are a number of good and very experienced debt counselling services available that are run by volunteers with support from taxpayers. Citizens Advice, for example. Why does the council feel the need to encourage a specifically Christian service to be set up when church volunteers could and should be encouraged to join existing charities in the field?
What guarantees are there that church volunteers coming into contact with vulnerable adults and children have had CRB checks? Will their services be open to inspection by statutory bodies to ensure that they are being run professionally and ethically, and that people seeking help are not regarded first and foremost as potential recruits? Will the services be available to all and sundry, regardless of their religious backgrounds, sexuality, lifestyles, etc.?
Again, we do not know, and neither it seems does the County Council.
In recent years countless cases of abuse of children and vulnerable adults in the care of churches and other religious groups have come to light. It has happened in children's homes, homes dedicated to looking after young women, schools, madrasas, youth clubs, etc. The victims run into the tens of thousands across Europe, and we know that repeatedly abusers have been shielded and protected.
In a case still before the courts, a paedophile Catholic priest from Portsmouth abused children in his care. The Catholic Church is contesting the claim for compensation by saying that the priest was not an employee of the church because he depended, as most priests do, on donations from his congregation. A good account of the case can be found here.
This is a new twist on an argument used by other religious groups to defend themselves against charges of discrimination by claiming that under the Equalities Act, volunteers do not enjoy the same legal rights as employees. A man who was carrying out voluntary work for an evangelical group was receiving board and lodging; when the group heard that he was in a gay relationship, it turfed him out. And that was OK, the Evangelical Alliance is pleased to tell us.
In the current issue of the respected German weekly current affairs magazine Der Spiegel there is a lengthy report on the rise of extremism among Israel's ultra-orthodox community. An English version of the article can be found here. There some women are beginning to encase themselves in multiple layers of clothing and even wear heavy veils without eye holes to protect their modesty. In one case, a woman ended up wearing 10 coats and multiple pairs of trousers, long skirts and gloves in the searing heat. Eventually she would not show her face even to her family, and communicated by gestures. She constructed a tent in the bathroom so that not even the walls of the house could see her naked. At the same time, she was known to be administering savage beatings to her children for what she regarded to be breaches of the moral code and to force them to pray. Two of the children developed an incestuous relationship, and were having sex in the same house.
The woman, Bruria Keren, is now serving a prison sentence for child abuse. Interestingly, her son told reporters that if it had not been for the religious aspects of the case, she would have been committed to psychiatric care. Instead, the religious community of which she was a part, closed ranks.
If that all sounds a bit exotic and not like the sort of thing which could happen here, think again. Check out what the Daily Mail (yes, I know, I'm sorry) told us about Carmarthenshire's very own Stephen Green, leader of Christian Voice.
While it has been taking its time to ensure conformity with the Act, the Council has been rather more energetic in embracing David Cameron's "Big Society" by outsourcing parts of its social care responsibilities to Christian evangelical groups which are not part of the traditional mainstream churches and religious denominations in Wales.
What these groups have in common is that they are for the most part small, independent organisations, often founded and led by the same individuals, with highly conservative views on social matters, a belief that the Bible is a true in all respects and that those who do not share the same beliefs are destined for everlasting punishment in hell. The groups the council has chosen to work with (and in one case support with large sums of public money) also all belong to various national and international organisations, often controlled ultimately from the American Bible Belt, which have overtly right-wing political aims.
A core part of the strategy of these groups is to infiltrate government at all levels to gain influence over education, welfare and social policies, and moving into the provision of social care to "help" cash-strapped councils is part and parcel of that strategy. They are quite open about this, as you can see from the websites of CARE, Gweini, the Evangelical Alliance, etc.
A defining characteristic of evangelicals is that a core part of their mission is to spread the word and win new converts. For most of them, in fact, it is a key requirement of their faith that they do just that; not to try to save unbelievers is actually sinful. Strange then, that some of the organisations, such as CARE (Christian Action, Research Education) and the Evangelical Alliance advise their members to play down their beliefs when carrying out social work.
Perhaps noisy, bible-bashing volunteers might upset people and complicate the real aims of these umbrella groups, which is to build their influence and power within government by stealth.
Budget cutbacks and the withdrawal of councils from areas of social care is certain to result in more outsourcing to religious groups in the next few years. Extreme care will be needed if the mistakes of the past are not to be repeated, and that is why it is so important that Carmarthenshire and other councils use all of the tools at their disposal to make sure that money and responsibility are not put into the wrong hands.