Monday, 12 July 2010

Loss of Faith

Remember the Government Faith Panel, that hand-picked bunch of semi-professional committee types, interfaith intermediaries, PR people and chancers whose announcement raised a few eyebrows back in January? I went to quite a bit of trouble tracking down the lucky thirteen to whom the former Communities Secretary John Denham lent his ear (Jesus, you may recall, managed with just twelve disciples), and was delighted to discover that it encompassed such colourful personalities as the student Islamic activist turned dentist Wakkas Khan and the Sikh former independent Parliamentary candidate Jasdev Singh Rai, as well as an old friend of David Blunkett's from Sheffield city council. But I may have been wasting my time. The Panel seems to have vanished.

Fearing that the Faith Panel might be about to fall victim to the new government's cost-cutting zeal (although the advisers were unpaid, it would still have been necessary to refund their expenses and provide them with a nice cup of tea as they filled the Secretary of State in on the latest comings-and-goings, faithwise) I sought out information on the departmental website. Nothing. Even the press release - which had proudly announced the creation of the panel and celebrated its bringing together of "an unprecedented wealth of knowledge and experience that will help advise on the big issues facing society such as the economy, parenting, achieving social justice and tackling climate change" - has been removed.

I contacted the department in search of elucidation. Back came the reply: "Details of the Faith Advisory Panel are not on the 'live' CLG website in line with the current moratorium on all policy areas under review by the new government" said spokesman David Carnell. "Under review" means, I suppose, on death row with little hope of reprieve. The statement went on to say that the future both of the remit and membership of the panel were being considered - but I also discover that the new Communities Secretary Eric Pickles wants to end "this habit of Labour appointing its mates and then kicking issues into the long grass." All that unprecedented knowledge and experience will be overlooked, then - a tragic waste, as I'm sure you'll agree.

Mind you, it doesn't sound as though even John Denham made much use of the panel - I'm advised that the panel has not met since March. And the panel members seemed a bit reticent about the whole thing. At least, few of them wanted to talk to me, although one, Jenny Kartupelis - from the East of England Faiths Council - "felt that the conversations were useful." She didn't elaborate.