Public service reform

We want inclusive, accessible public services for everyone, regardless of religion or belief, with no discrimination in employment or service delivery, and human rights protection for service users.

We are concerned that this is increasingly not the case, as more and more contracts are awarded by local and national government to religious groups that are able to discriminate against employees and service users whilst fulfilling the contracts in question. We believe equality and human rights legislation needs amending to end the exemptions that make such discrimination possible.

In depth

Across the board, publicly funded, comprehensive, and statutory public services – to which all citizens have an entitlement – are being contracted out to private and voluntary and community sector organisations, including to religious organisations.

Religious organisations have significant exemptions from the Equality Act 2010 allowing them to discriminate in various ways even when working under contract to provide a public service. For example, the exemptions from employment equality legislation allow religious employers to discriminate against potential applicants for jobs on grounds of religion or belief, as well as sexual orientation, and to discriminate against current employees on those same grounds in ways such as barring them from promotion or dismissing them.

In addition, citizens do not have the protection of the Human Rights Act when their services are delivered by private or charitable organisations, many of the latter religious, working under contract for a public authority. They would have those protections if their services were provided by the public authority itself.

Such a policy gives rise to significant issues of principle and to substantial practical problems such as:

  • discrimination against employees of no, or another, religion – including public sector workers who have been transferred to a religious employer
  • unfair promotion prospects for those of the ‘wrong’ religion or no religion
  • discrimination against service users of no or another religion and reduced rights for service users
  • discrimination against LGBT employees or service users
  • religious harassment
  • artificial boosting with public funds of the prestige and strength of religious organisations
  • uneconomic duplication of services
  • divisive effects on the community with implications for social cohesion and equality

The problems associated with having religious organisations as public service providers are so varied and so great, that it is our firm view that no publicly-funded, comprehensive, and statutory public service should be contracted out to a religious organisation until the law has been changed to protect service users and employees from discrimination.

If religious organisations are to supply and deliver public services, the UK Government must take a number of steps to address the problems that will inevitably arise:

  • we want the Human Rights Act amended to treat religious contractors delivering general public services on behalf of a public authority to be treated themselves as public authorities
  • we want the Equality Act 2010 and Northern Ireland equality legislation to be amended to suspend the exemptions for religious groups when they are working under public contract on behalf of the state
  • until such time as legislation is amended, we want all contracts with religious groups to provide public services to include equality, non-discrimination, and non-proselytising clauses
  • we want all public authorities to maintain a public record of contracts with religious groups and to set appropriate contractual and monitoring systems in place to prevent discrimination in employment or provision of services
  • the UK Government should set in place appropriate measures to assist public authorities in identifying and excluding groups with extreme agendas that may bid to take on public services contracts.

What we’re doing

  • In 2007, we published our report on the contracting out of public services to religious organisations, Quality and Equality: Human Rights, Public Services and Religious Organisations, which discusses and sets out in detail our position.
  • Since then we have been campaigning on the basis of the proposals in our report, including by: lobbying the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and the Government about getting rid of the exemptions currently afforded to religious organisations, particularly in the context of the Equality Act 2010; in 2008, supporting a claimant in a landmark religious discrimination employment tribunal; working with parliamentarians to amend the Human Rights Act 1998 to ensure that all service users are covered by it, no matter who their provider is; advising on contractual stipulations to ensure that contracted providers cannot discriminate in employment or against service users; and working in collaboration with other organisations to raise awareness of the issues and seek new ways to campaign for inclusive, secular public services.
  • We have also highlighted specific examples of contracts being given to religious groups, such as the national contract for providing services to trafficked women being given to the evangelical Salvation Army, which regards homosexuality as ‘self evidently abnormal’, and says that lesbian and gay people should be celibate; and Richmond Council awarding its children’s counselling contract to the anti-LGBT Catholic Children’s Society.
  • In 2015, we submitted evidence to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s review of the place of religion and belief in the workplace, with the subsequent evidence finding many complaining about ‘unwelcome “preaching” or proselytising, and the expression of views that were hurtful or derogatory towards other faiths and/or towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people’ – including in public service provision.

Get involved

Watch out for local (and national) initiatives under which public services are already delivered by religious organisations or it is proposed that they should be. Find out about them and get in touch.

You can email your MP to raise your concerns about the UK Government’s plans to contract out services to religious organisations and ask them to support Humanists UK campaign.

Watch for advertisements for posts restricted to believers in a particular religion and let us know of them.

You can support Humanists UK by becoming a member. That helps in itself, and you can help even more by supporting our campaigns in the ways suggested above. But campaigns also cost money – quite a lot of money – and we also need financial support. You can make a donation to Humanists UK.