Very few readers of this magazine will have heard of the government minister Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth. A former leader of the Conservatives in the Welsh Assembly, Lord Bourne has been a member of the Upper House since 2013. He is currently a junior minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). As such he oversees community cohesion, race equality, troubled families, domestic refuges, travellers policy, as well as being in charge of the Syrian Refugees Programme.
On top of that, he works in the Wales Office where is also junior minister with responsibilities for energy, environment, defence, local government, localism, education and law and order in Wales. As part of his job is the DCLG, he is responsible for “faith and integration”; in other words, Lord Bourne has inherited the portfolio once entrusted to Lady Warsi, who was Minister for Faith between September 2012 and August 2014. However, as a senior government figure in the Foreign Office she attended Cabinet meetings. Lord Bourne does not.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that in the current government, the faith brief is not as central as it once was. This has nothing to do with the abilities of Lord Bourne, and everything to do with the way the matter of faith and integration has been lost amidst a sea of other concerns. No one can deny that Mrs May and her team have huge challenges ahead of them, not least Brexit. But neither can it be denied that one of the major underlying challenges that this or any government must face is that presented by religious extremism, as illustrated by the recent case of Anjem Choudary.
Mr Choudary was able to stir up sectarian strife in Britain and abroad for two decades, unimpeded by the state, and helped, wittingly or not, by the media. The damage he was allowed to do should not be underestimated. Such damage makes the government’s task of fostering integration amongst religious communities more urgent and important than ever.
The religious question needs to be discussed in Cabinet, which is one reason why the minister holding the religious brief should be at the Cabinet table. Moreover, the question of religious extremism and how to confront its causes, and to deal with its effects, is one that crosses boundaries and impacts all government departments.
The rise of religious extremism presents a severe challenge to our prison system, which has become a hotbed of radicalisation. Similar challenges are seen in schools and universities, and our criminal justice system has already shown its inability to deal with the so-called preachers of hate. Our foreign policy has until now shown little understanding of the role played by religion in the world today, and little concern with persecution of Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere. Moreover, the British Foreign Office seems to have little problem with doing business with religiously repressive countries such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
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