UK

Funding withdrawal for faith charity happening at ‘extraordinarily stupid’ time

The Inter Faith Network was described as the ‘principal vehicle in the UK for Muslim-Jewish dialogue’.

Sir Stephen Timms criticised the Government
Sir Stephen Timms Sir Stephen Timms criticised the Government (UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA)

The Government has been accused of shutting down the main forum for Muslim-Jewish dialogue in the UK at an “extraordinarily stupid” time.

The Inter Faith Network, founded in 1987 with the aim of helping to promote good relations between people of different faiths across the UK, said it would confirm on Thursday whether the charity will close.

The Government had previously said that, because a member of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) was appointed to the charity’s “core governance structure” last year, it had decided to withdraw the offer of new funding for the organisation.

Government minister Felicity Buchan said the appointment of an MCB member poses a reputational risk to Government
Government minister Felicity Buchan said the appointment of an MCB member to the core governance structure of the organisation poses a reputational risk to Government (Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA) Government minister Felicity Buchan said the appointment of an MCB member poses a reputational risk to Government (Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA)

Answering an urgent question on the situation, Government minister Felicity Buchan told Parliament: “As this house will be aware, successive governments have had a longstanding policy of non-engagement with the MCB.

“The appointment of an MCB member to the core governance structure of a Government-funded organisation therefore poses a reputational risk to Government.”

She said Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove, had “carefully considered” points raised by the IFN after the appointment but had concluded these were “outweighed by the need to maintain the Government’s policy of non-engagement with the MCB and the risk of compromising the credibility and effectiveness of that policy”.

But Labour MP Sir Stephen Timms criticised the decision and the timing, especially in light of the chaotic scenes in the Commons just a day earlier over a vote on Gaza.

Sir Stephen said: “Is it not, given the debate in this chamber yesterday, extraordinarily stupid to be shutting down at this precise point our principal vehicle in the UK for Muslim-Jewish dialogue?

“Surely we need more, not to be shutting that down?”

He said the charity had made a “very important contribution” to the UK for almost four decades.

Conservative former minister Theresa Villiers described the current situation as “regrettable”.

She said: “I completely understand the importance of not engaging with organisations which have hardline views but surely we can find a compromise to keep the IFN in business? Because they do do some incredibly valuable work in fostering respect and mutual understanding between different faith groups.”

Labour MP Barry Sheerman said of the funding withdrawal: “It’s the wrong time, and the wrong move.”

He pleaded with the minister, saying: “Please, please, for the good of our country and for community relations, will the Government think again?”

Ms Buchan replied: “As I have said, interfaith work is very important and we are funding a number of organisations to do that interfaith work.”

Shadow communities minister Liz Twist said interfaith dialogue is now “more important than ever”, given recent events such as “the war and the violence in Gaza”.

A spokesman for the department said: “Interfaith work is hugely important but that does not require us to use taxpayer money in a way that legitimises the influence of organisations such as the MCB.

“The Inter Faith Network cannot rely on continuous taxpayer funding.

“We regularly remind our partners, including the IFN, of the importance of developing sustainable funding arrangements, rather than relying on taxpayers’ money, which can never be guaranteed.”

A Charity Commission spokeswoman said: “We can confirm that, in line with our guidance, the Inter Faith Network has filed a serious incident report relating to the likelihood that it will need to close due to funding issues.”

The charity’s board will meet on Thursday, when it will take a decision on whether the organisation will close.

A founding member of the Inter Faith Network, Lord Singh of Wimbledon, said he found it “sad” that the funding would be withdrawn at this time.

Lord Singh, who is the editor of Sikh Messenger and known for presenting Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, told the House of Lords: “The Inter Faith Network has done some remarkably good work, particularly in the celebration of the millennium and getting religion in the census and so on…

“There’s been moves to actually discuss the importance of commonality and build on them, and it is sad that this is happening at this particular time.

“And it’s particularly sad that the reason given is that the board contains a member of the Muslim Council of Britain – it is not a proscribed organisation and it is better to have people with different views talking together to move the country forward into respect for one another.”