Four years in the making, stretching to 159 pages, and considering over 21,000 responses from the public, the Bloom Review was published on 26 April 2023 by Colin Bloom, Independent Faith Engagement Advisor. It is the first of its kind, a far-reaching and independent review into how government engages with faith in a broad range of public institutions – from schools and prisons, to the Civil Service and the Armed Forces.
“Does government ‘do’ God?”, the review asks. Yes it does, concludes Bloom, though he believes there is also room for improvement and makes 22 recommendations to help government improve its engagement with people of faith.
“A force for good”
There is much to welcome in Bloom’s Review. Not least, the acknowledgement that faith is “a force for good” and that life in the UK would be markedly different without the historical legacy and the overwhelmingly positive contributions that faith, people of faith and places of worship make to society. Blooms recognises that the faith-based charity sector has significant reach and impact in our society, providing key services in areas such as education, health and care. The Review mentions the immense and invaluable contribution of faith-based organisations to the effectiveness of government when it attempts to tackle some of the most pressing social challenges, whether poverty, loneliness or mental health. Indeed, faith-based organisations make up around 27% of charities in England and Wales, and the sector is growing.
While acknowledging the good, the Review doesn’t shy away from naming and shaming the bad that can also arise in the faith context or within some religious groups where the vulnerable are exploited in the name of religion. Areas of concern include forced and coercive marriage, faith-based extremism, and financial exploitation where funds and loans are manipulatively extracted from trusting followers of the faith. Rightly, there needs to be scrutiny of any faith groups that carry out such harmful practices.
The Review is careful not to overstate the prevalence of such harmful practices among faith communities. While it notes the seriousness of these areas of harm, it recognises that they are carried out by a small number of individuals and groups in the context of the overwhelming positive contributions of faith communities.
The Review makes 22 recommendations in all and some of these are highlighted below:
- The appointment of an Independent Faith Champion, with a well-resourced team of civil servants and sectoral experts to ensure government is successfully engaging with faith, people of faith and places of worship.
- A new programme of faith literacy training for all public sector staff to ensure public servants understand those they are helping, and to increase partnership opportunities with faith groups who are already playing a valuable role in the social fabric of our society.
- Regular roundtables between government and senior faith leaders, so the momentum gained during the pandemic can be built on and the collaboration between faith leaders and the state can be strengthened.
- The introduction of Sharia-compliant student loans.
- Increased resources for the Charity Commission’s investigations team so they are better able to pursue cases of financial exploitation. In addition, the production of a toolkit for MPs, local councillors and local government officers to spot signs of faith-based financial coercion and exploitation, with clear instructions on reporting to relevant authorities including the police and Charity Commission.
- The expansion of the role of the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief to include the promotion and protection of religious freedom in the UK. Government should be equally vigilant regarding the protections and freedoms of religion, belief and faith at home as it is overseas.
The success of the Review will in time be determined by if and how well its recommendations are acted on by government. Bloom’s stated hope is that government will be galvanised by the recommendations to better support and work with the overwhelmingly positive aspects of faith – let’s hope that the government seizes this opportunity and does exactly that.