Page from James Gray's article on the Big Society, September/October 2011After no less than four relaunches are we any closer to knowing exactly what the Big Society is? Prime Minister David Cameron’s vision of a “fairer, richer, safer Britain” was always somewhat nebulous, not a policy in itself, but an impulse running through various government initiatives. Its declared aim is to reverse the family and community breakdown resulting from rampant consumerism and an overreaching state. The solution to these problems, Cameron argues, is to dismantle the barriers that stop people taking full responsibility for themselves and playing an active part in their communities.

Recently the idea has come slightly more into focus. A number of projects aimed at increasing volunteering, charitable giving and philanthropy have already been launched, but the most important – and controversial – step in realising the Big Society is radical reform of the way public services are delivered. New legislation announced by Health Secretary Andrew Lansley on 19 July (at the same time as Rupert Murdoch was appearing in front of the select committee) will introduce a presumption that services should be open to a range of competing providers from the voluntary and private sectors – a policy known as “any qualified provider” – who will also be encouraged to propose new ways of delivering them.

But what can we expect from these changes? Can broken Britain really be glued back together by a rise in motivated voluntary activity or is the whole thing simply a feelgood façade masking savage spending cuts and the Conservatives’ real aim of a full-blown free market in public services? Humanists and secularists have particular cause for concern about the devolution of service provision: they fear churches and religious charities will be favoured in the commissioning process not only because they readily accept the Big Society narrative of moral decline, but also because their ranks of unpaid volunteers mean they can often provide services cheaply – or even free. The result, secular campaigners claim, will be “proselytisation on the public purse” and widespread religiously motivated discrimination. “The creeping handing over of public services of all kinds to religious organisations will alienate potential users and distort the way those services themselves are delivered,” says Polly Toynbee, Guardian columnist and president of the British Humanist Association. “Whatever the service may be, if it comes with a religious label it is threatening and alienating to a lot of people – and these are services paid for by the taxpayer for everybody.”

Secularists are certainly right that the government believes religious groups are integral to the Big Society. “Some see religion as a problem that needs to be solved,” Communities minister Eric Pickles told a meeting of religious leaders last year. “The new government sees it as part of the solution.” Though Pickles likes to claim this initiative as an innovation of the coalition, in fact the policy builds on foundations laid by the previous government. His predecessors at the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) – particularly Hazel Blears – went to unprecedented lengths to involve religious groups in public service provision.

But the coalition has significantly extended this policy. Ministers have courted church leaders through a series of high-profile receptions and speeches while senior Conservative advisers helped launch The Cinnamon Network, a group of over a hundred Christian bodies focused on increasing religious involvement in Big Society initiatives.

Some controversial funding decisions suggest the new approach is already influencing local authorities: in east London a charity linked with pro-life Christian group Care Confidential received funding to run a sex education website, while another London council contracted the Catholic Children’s Society to provide in-school counselling, including advice on contraception.

This increased role for religious groups is warmly welcomed by David Singleton, chief executive of Faith Action, a network of religious groups that provide public services. “In most faiths there is a duty of care to the stranger, the foreigner, the poor, the orphan and the widow,” he says. “The Big Society just gives more permission, and expectation, that people will go out and do good stuff.”

Singleton’s role is to strengthen the relationship between government and religious groups. It’s a relationship, he says, that has often been strained by politicians’ “squeamishness” about religion. But fears of state-sponsored soul saving are unfounded, he insists, because they are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of religious belief. “For me, as a person of faith, it’s not about counting beans or bums on seats. It’s actually about making a difference. If people access services and their life has been improved, then that’s a success in itself.”

But Singleton’s assurances will do little to appease many secularists. “I cannot believe that people who are deep believers don’t, with the best of motives and best of intent, feel it’s best for their vulnerable clients to seek solace from religion,” says Polly Toynbee. “As far as they’re concerned it’s the great comforter and they find it very difficult to understand that for large numbers of people it’s quite the opposite.”

Singleton insists he is sympathetic to such concerns, however, and his advice to his members is unequivocal: “If you’re taking public money you’ve got to play by the rules.” But what exactly are the rules? Religious organisations enjoy wide exemptions from equality law, allowing them to discriminate on the grounds of religion, belief and sexual orientation in order to avoid conflict with “strongly held convictions”. Individual religious organisations deal with these issues in different ways, but there have been recent cases where vicars have banned Tai Chi lessons, psychic evenings and even yoga sessions from church premises. Churches would also in principle be permitted to prevent gay people from participating in their activities.

In theory, however, these exemptions are revoked when a service is funded by a public body such as a local council. But the legislation is still new and unproven. For a start, the exemptions are only negated in relation to the contracted service, not the group’s other activities. Is it realistic to expect a church that legally discriminates in other areas of its work to stop when in receipt of public funds?

The legal position on proselytising is murkier still. Under human rights law, the public are protected from harassment – which could include attempts to convert – by anyone working for a public body. But it is unclear if groups that provide state-funded services are actually classed as public bodies – case law suggests not.

More fundamentally, effective enforcement of equalities and human rights legislation requires well-informed, confident service users. Yet those most reliant on public services are often also the most vulnerable, unaware of even their most basic legal rights.

The DCLG has produced no guidance to address these specific concerns, insisting that Whitehall should not dictate how services are delivered. A DCLG spokesperson says that while proselytisation is “not appropriate … it’s perfectly reasonable for faith groups to be open about their religious motivation, or explain more about their faith to those who ask.”

Humanist Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament Julian Huppert calls for more decisive action. He describes as “deeply misguided” the assumption among some Conservative ministers that charity is the natural role of the religious. As a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Huppert has pressed them to defend equality law more robustly and tighten human rights legislation to cover all state-funded services, whoever provides them.

Huppert warns that perceived discrimination alone could deny access to vital services. “Let’s say that old people’s care in a particular area is done by a religious group. Somebody from a different religion or somebody who has no religion may not feel able to access it. They may feel there are barriers in the way even if technically there aren’t any.”

But in being so openly hostile to religious service providers, could secularists be contributing to the perception of discrimination? When the Poppy Project, a service for women trafficked into prostitution, had its funding redirected to the Salvation Army, accusations flew. Eaves Housing, the charity behind the Poppy Project, accused the Salvation Army of advocating fasting for trafficking victims and removing their mobile phones. The British Humanist Association told supporters that Poppy Project clients had “cried in despair at the news that Christian evangelicals would be taking over the service.”

The Salvation Army believes this was gross misrepresentation, pointing to their strong track record in supporting trafficking victims. It says it does encourage its members to fast in remembrance of the victims of trafficking, but insists there is “absolutely no fasting of any kind” for service users. And Eaves has since admitted that the only evidence for the removal of mobile phones was allegations made about other religious organisations, not the Salvation Army.

Eaves’ tone is more measured now. “Many church-based organisations like the Salvation Army do great work in supporting vulnerable people,” says Heather Harvey, Eaves’ research and development manager, “but we feel that non-judgmental, secular organisations are more able to deliver the best commitment to equality and human rights.”

Media debate about religion in public life tends to be dominated by high-profile cases of Christians falling foul of equality law and policies: the guesthouse owners forced to pay damages to a gay couple they turned away; the former foster carers prevented from fostering again after refusing to tell children that homosexuality is acceptable; the electrician told by his employers to remove a cross from his van.

Such cases, taken up by lobby groups such as the Christian Legal Centre, can give a distorted picture. It appears that most religious groups currently delivering services are broadly supportive of equality and human rights law. In theory at least, they draw a line between their spiritual and social ministry and often understand “evangelism” as spreading the Christian message through action and example rather than proselytisation. But critics say such theological distinctions are meaningless unless backed up by legal protections.

Secularist fears about the Big Society remain largely hypothetical and there is a risk of making faith-based groups scapegoats for wider political grievances. But with safeguards currently so weak, it seems inevitable that a minority of religious providers will attempt to impose their beliefs on service users. There is also the prospect of more hardline and confrontational groups, who have previously showed little interest in delivering services, using the Big Society as an opportunity to expand and gain new influence.

It is not just secularist campaigners who are concerned. Polling suggests that while the electorate broadly agree with Cameron about the problems facing Britain today, they are unconvinced by his proposed solutions and particularly uneasy about the involvement of religious organisations. The government’s unwillingness to take active steps against religiously motivated discrimination and harassment will only increase this scepticism and – directly contrary to Cameron’s aims – may actually exacerbate the fraught relationship between private faith and public life.