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

“Muslimness was raised as an issue”. Those words from Nusrat Ghani on why she was dropped as a Minister in February 2020 make for difficult reading.

Mark Spencer, the Chief Whip, has said the words did not come from him and the case is now rightly the subject of Cabinet Office investigation.

But whatever the outcome, it’s clear that the row has reignited fears that the Conservative Party has a blind spot – or perhaps even deliberate bias – against people of faith.

Of course, it’s important to keep this in context. The Prime Minister said at PMQs this week that “we don’t care what religion you affirm – all we care about is whether you are interested in ideas of aspiration and opportunity.”

In the round, I think he is right. I am always struck when I go out campaigning by the range of people drawn to the Conservative Party – from all walks of life and every part of the United Kingdom.

However, there is a sense that in some sections of our Party there is a lack of understanding about people of faith. Nusrat has clearly felt it and it’s something that people from other faiths have felt as well.

It was three years ago that Conservative peer, Baroness Warsi, described the Conservative Party as “institutionally Islamophobic”. That lead to the Singh Investigation, which is worth looking at again in light of the current claims.

The report from Professor Swaran Singh, published in May last year, found that anti-Muslim sentiment remained a problem in the Conservative Party. It also revealed that two-thirds of all incidents reported to the complaints team at CCHQ related to allegations of anti-Muslim discrimination.

However, the Singh Investigation also commented that “the cultural values of several minority groups like Hindus and Sikhs were the same as those of Muslims – strong family and intergenerational bonds, self-reliance, community support and extensive social capital”.

These values are so obviously matched by the values of the Conservative Party, yet the Singh Investigation found that “the Party was not seen as a natural political home for these communities.”

A similar missed opportunity exists among other groups, including Catholics. Concepts of individual responsibility, compassion, and the dignity of work contained in Catholic Social Teaching are also Conservative values.

And yet the Conservative Party hasn’t always recognised the potential for finding support among the Catholic community in this country, and perhaps our party hasn’t always looked that welcoming.

I recall during a selection meeting a couple of years ago being asked if there were any Conservative Government policies I disagreed with. The only one that came to mind was the two-child cap on the childcare element of Universal Credit and Working Tax Credits – a policy I believe discriminates against larger families.

In a 20-minute selection meeting, around half of the time was taken up discussing my views on that particular subject. I answered the questions as clearly as I could, saying I felt the policy went against my faith and my conscience. I received a call shortly after the meeting saying I had been rejected by the selection committee.

I am not suggesting for one moment that this was a case of discrimination, or that my “Catholicness” was the reason I was rejected as a candidate.

But I’m not convinced that the people on the selection panel that day really understood where I was coming from, and perhaps this added to the overall view that I wasn’t a sound candidate. I have heard similar stories from Catholic friends.

Again, it’s important we do not lose sight of context. At the end of the Second World War, you could count the number of Catholic Conservative MPs on one hand – today we have one as Prime Minister!

Links between Catholics in our Party are being strengthened by a new group started last year. Catholics in the Conservative Party now has ten parliamentary patrons and members at all levels. But clearly there is more work to do – especially in making our Party more appealing to the 4.5 million Catholics in this country.

The need for better engagement is true for other faith groups as well. The Singh Investigation was clear that the Conservative Party needed to do more to engage with the Muslim community. CCHQ has been advertising for a Race and Faith Engagement Officer – whoever is appointed will have a lot of work to do, but will also find a huge amount of potential support amongst faith groups in this country.

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.” We must make sure that the contribution of people from faith groups is recognised in our Party as well.