Monday, November 09, 2009

Equalities review day

The news today has been full of reminiscences about the fall of the Berlin Wall. It's also Rachel's birthday.

This morning I attended a Council review conference on the first full year of work implementing the single Equalities Act. The presentations before an audience of a hundred were interesting, and so were the two optional workshops I attended.

One was about the involvement of the public in the processes of consultation which accompany every imaginable initiative by local authority, public and voluntary bodies and businesses these days. The Council's research team has published a new website dedicated to gathering information in one place about consultations going on in the region. It's a site where results can be published, and a site to which people can be directed by organisations running consultations who want to open up their survey mechanisms to people at random in general public to ensure as wide a range of opinions are heard, and not just those of a target constituency.

The site is called 'Ask Cardiff' and is well worth a visit to discover just what organisations are asking questions about now, and what answers they've come up with previously. It's easier to examine and find out than it is to try and describe. It presupposes that people are ICT literate of course, and one of the challenges of adult as well as children's education today is to ensure anyone can us a computer to obtain information, and that nobody is left out.

The other workshop was about social inclusion of religiously diverse communities in a dominantly secular context which tends to undervalue and disregard their contribution. The group was under a dozen, one of the smallest. Demand for the workshop was illustrative of how uninterested the majority of people are in the role of religion in public life. This kind of event, for people in local government, public service and voluntary organisations, with a handful of politicians and hangers-on like me, attracts few with an interest in the role of religion in society, even if some participants, particularly those from black and ethnic minority groups, were more likely to be of religious persuasion. Of the nine in this interest group, only three of us were obviously white British in origin.

The discussion was valuable and wide ranging, touching upon respect for people's outward display of religious identity - turbans, crosses, hijab etc; dietary matters at public events, need to develop existing training in religious diversity awareness and recognise that, however successful, it is limited if it fails to include introduction to majority Christianity either in its white British manifestation or its diverse ethnic minority editions. Yes, it's true - Christianity is omitted in present religious induction training sessions in local government here. Only 'other religious' are covered.

It may be argued that Christianity is 'too hard' for the simple minded structures of local government thinking to imagine how to include it in an introductory course, so it's excluded, effectively in contradiction of the Equalities Act. But the same is true if one considers diversity within Islam or Buddhism. Those in charge are content to settle for an over-simplification of their richness in order to introduce them to a new audience. Basically, Christianity is ignored, and even Christians within local government are too embarrassed to take issue with this. It could be argued that forms of Christianity, despite the public exposure they get, are now so poorly known as to be in no different position (in the eyes of the majority of secular religionless people) to any other form of faith.

I suspect that originally an induction on religions and culture was a well intended effort to help public servants understand and serve better a growing number of their clients who were 'different' from themselves. Twenty years ago that was a good start, but we've moved on from there. Religious and cultural diversity is as common-place a factor in ordinary people's lives as diversity in gender and sexual preference, but greatly played down. Re-education is needed, and the learning objectives need to be re-evaluated if social inclusion, cohesion and justice are to be achieved for all citizens.

Annoyingly I had to leave to get to Tredegarville in time for the re-start of 'God on Mondays', so I missed the plenary report back, so I don't know whether points I made in the workshop survived in transmission.

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