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Is the government trying to resurrect controversial plans to inspect church activities?

In 2015 a coalition of Christian organisations fought government proposals to regulate Sunday Schools and won. Four years later CARE’s James Mildred says ‘big brother’ regulation is being brought in through the backdoor

How would you feel if your church had to be registered with the Government, with the prospect of being inspected by officials? What if the officials sent to inspect your church did not agree with traditional Christian views on sexuality, for example, or marriage, to say nothing of hell and judgement? Surely it would raise the alarming prospect that your church would be censored simply for preaching the good news of Jesus and upholding thousands of years of church teaching.

To some this might all seem a bit far fetched and unrealistic. Are we really saying this is a likely prospect? State regulation and censorship might take place in other regimes known for abusing many human rights, but not here in the United Kingdom.

Yet the truth is that State inspection of church activities could become a disturbing reality. To understand why and how, we need to go back four years to 2015. Back then, the Government announced plans to empower Ofsted Inspectors to regulate and inspect out-of-school educational settings. If you provided ‘educational’ services to young people 19 or under for more than six hours cumulatively during the week, you would need to be registered with the State and could be inspected by Ofsted. The aim was to crack down on ‘undesirable teaching’.

Obviously, when you combine youth groups, small groups, Bible studies, mid-weeks, Sunday schools and church services, many churches provide six or more hours of teaching to young people. Despite vague reassurances, it became obvious that the scope of the proposals would include many churches.

The prospect of Ofsted examining Bible studies and youth groups sparked a debate about religious liberty. In a pluralist society, who gets to decide what constitutes undesirable teaching? Is it the State? If so, how can we be sure they’ll understand and grasp the difference between genuinely extremist views and traditional Christian teaching?

CARE was one of the many organisations who responded to the Government’s plans, arguing that the idea was an attack on free speech. At the time, we said the proposals were also overly bureaucratic, unworkable and arguably illegal under international law. As CARE CEO Nola Leach put it, the plans were more big brother than big society. In fact, lots and lots of people responded to the Government’s plans. In January 2017, the Government admitted that 18,000 people took part in the public consultation – a huge number for such an exercise. Following the outcry, the plans were quietly dropped last year after two years of constant delays.

However, the Evangelical Alliance has spotted that they could be re-surfacing. The Government is currently consulting on plans for home education. Children Not in School makes a number of proposals to do with home education but crucially, it suggests creating a legal obligation upon “proprietors” of “settings” to take, maintain and store registers of attendance at the setting for state inspection upon request, with sanctions for any failures to do so.

Why is this alarming? Well, the immediate question is this: what does the Government mean by a ‘setting’? Could it apply to churches? What about anywhere that provides youth work in local communities, free of charge? Last I checked, churches fit that category.  Also, what does the Government mean by “proprietors”? There is no attempt at a definition in the consultation at all. Which is eerily like what happened in 2015. Most likely, the lack of clear definitions is because the Department of Education doesn’t yet have one. The door is open, therefore for broad, vague, ill-defined definitions that could potentially mean churches end up being included (be that accidently or deliberately) within the parameters of the plans and therefore facing the requirement to be registered and face inspections.

If this proves to be the case, it would show that the Government has learnt nothing from the experience four years ago. At the time, church leaders, faith groups and individual Christians spoke out vehemently, as did many MPs, to warn about the unintended consequences of the Government’s plans. The Government was forced into a U-turn. Surely it does not want to face such embarrassment again.

Crucially, this is not about a lack of desire for proper, robust safeguarding. CARE wholeheartedly supports ensuring that the well-being of children and young people is taken as seriously as possible. But the Government needs to listen more and seek to understand exactly why its proposals could cause real tension with the Christian community.

The prospect of church activities being investigated and registered by the state would be a completely unacceptable intrusion on religious liberty. It would fundamentally alter the established relationship between the church and the state. It would also further damage relations between the Government and Christian groups. Let’s hope common sense prevails and the Government provides both clarity and reassurances. 

James Mildred is Communications Manager at Christian Action Research and Education (CARE)

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