Dr Martin Parsons is a former aid worker in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
It was rotten luck for Sajid Javid, his department’s flagship new community integration strategy was overshadowed by being launched the same day as the UK expelled 23 Russian diplomats. Yet that should not diminish the importance of the Community Secretary’s green paper which is the government’s response to the Casey Review.
Yet, that’s a very shallow criticism. What the Communities Secretary has done is to sift Louise Casey’s proposals, keep the good ones such as a major new emphasis on everyone speaking English, and bin the chaff.
For example, he has dropped her proposal for everyone holding public office being required to swear an oath of allegiance to a set of British values, which while yet undefined, in the Casey Review look suspiciously like the narrow sectarian views of social liberals.
There were three basic things wrong with the Casey Review, first of which was a quite extraordinary level of ignorance of the UK’s constitutional development, particularly in respect of freedom of religion.
The oath of office, for example, is something which used to be required for holders of public office. It was part of the ‘Test Acts’ which required people to affirm certain, then politically correct, beliefs (in that case those of the established church) in order to hold public office, such as being a school teacher, army officer, lawyer, mayor, MP, or even to study at university.
Between 1719 and 1888 Britain led the world in establishing freedom of religion by abolishing these Test Acts. In fact, as other English speaking countries, such as the USA and Australia, became independent of the UK, they wrote into their constitutions specific prohibitions against any future government introducing any form of ‘Test Act’ to hold public office. They did so because it was one of the most important aspects of freedom of religion.
That is why Sajid Javid was absolutely right to reject a proposal from the Casey Review which would in effect have reintroduced a ‘Test Act’ and quite literally have turned the clock back three centuries on freedom of religion.
Second, the Casey Review exhibited a disturbingly intolerant tendency increasingly evident among some on the liberal-left of seeking to hijack the debate about British values and extremism. They claim that their own partisan socially liberal values are ‘British values’ – and any disagreement with them amounts to ‘extremism’.
The Casey Review actually seeks to redefine ‘extremism’ as including religious views ‘at odds with the views of mainstream society’ and implies that this includes such things as opposition to abortion and support for traditional understanding of marriage. This is not only disingenuous, it is dangerously intolerant and ignores the UK’s long standing historical tolerance for political and religious non-conformity. In effect, it redefines ‘tolerance’ as requiring people to affirm the beliefs of social liberals, instead of its Oxford English Dictionary definition of ‘tolerating views one disagrees with’.
Javid’s integration strategy rightly rejects this, stating: ‘The government will always protect people’s legitimate rights – for example, to free speech, to hold traditional views and to practise their religion within the law’, while adding, ‘but we will not shy away from challenging cultures and practices that are harmful to individuals or restrict their rights and hold them back from making the most of the opportunities of living in modern Britain.’ That is absolutely not the Communities Secretary back tracking – that’s opposing both the intolerance of those who want to abuse women through practices such as forced marriage and female genital mutilation, while also having his eyes wide open to the more subtle, politically correct forms of intolerance advocated by the Casey Review.
A further problem with the Casey Review is that at times its prescription for tackling a lack of integration is to advocate further extending the power of the state into areas such as the family, education, the voluntary sector and even religion. It is in this area that the new green paper is weakest.
In the last couple of months there has been an overt attempt at this sort of power grab by Amanda Spielman, the new chief inspector Ofsted. She announced to a Church of England education conference that she wanted to revive the proposal for all out of school education settings, including Sunday schools, to be government registered and inspected by Ofsted.
This power grab by Ofsted is repeated in the green paper’s chapter on education which speaks of: ‘better regulation of out of school settings’; looking at how existing powers can be used by government and local authorities to ‘intervene’ in such settings; a voluntary code of conduct for such settings – including in relation to ‘teaching’ – and an announcement that the Government is about to publish the outcomes of its 2015 consultation on compulsory registration and Ofsted inspection of all out of school educational settings, including Sunday schools.
Let’s be clear on this: ‘better regulation’ means the introduction of regulation, and that would quite literally be turning the clock back on religious freedom by more than two centuries. Places of religious instruction and worship have not been subject to government control since the Conventicle Act was repealed in 1812.
So, please don’t jump on the bandwagon. Javid has done us all a great service in this green paper, including by rejecting some of the more dangerous and intolerant proposals in the Casey Review. That doesn’t mean it is perfect, in particular the Ofsted power grab needs to recognised for what it is and stood up against. But let’s remember this a green paper, and as such simply a consultation document, not a firm proposal at present.