21/02/2012 10:01 GMT

Eric Pickles Tackles Multiculturalism, Argues Faith Is 'Part Of The Solution'

Eric Pickles announced a strategy aimed at putting "mainstream" English values at the heart of public life on Tuesday, as he dismissed Labour's focus on multiculturalism as "the wrong path."

The communities secretary said people should use public events such as the Queen's Diamond Jubilee to come together with their neighbours, to celebrate what unites English people.

"We've seen men and women disciplined for wearing modest symbols of Christian faith at work, and we've seen legal challenges to councils opening their proceedings with prayers, a tradition that goes back generations, brings comfort to many and hurts no one. This is the politics of division," Pickles said.

"Some see religion as a problem that needs to be solved. We see it as part of the solution."

It comes days after the communities secretary moved to overturn a ban on prayers before council meetings.

Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, warned Pickles' strategy was going in "completely the wrong direction" and "bad news for all of us" in a blog for the Huffington Post: "It is a recipe for conflict between communities that already eye each other with suspicion.

"We see all over the world that when religion is given power, conflict follows. We have managed to some extent to keep this kind of sectarianism out of our policy making; now Pickles intends to restore it in a big way."

In a document on 'Creating the conditions for integration', released on Tuesday the communities department outlines how teachers must pledge not to undermine "fundamental British values." It said: "Schools, local authorities and police can continue to work together through safer schools partnerships to tackle anti-social behaviour, intolerance and extremism. This protection of children from extremist views by schools complements schools’ existing role in safeguarding children from drugs, gang violence or alcohol."

The department also outline steps to remain vigilant against hate crimes towards people of other faiths.

The paper highlights last summer's riots in England, saying they were not "race riots" but showed "the challenge is how to respond to the criminality and lack of social responsibility that lay behind the actions of a small number of people."

But the plans will be driven by "society", rather than government: "This means that building a more integrated society is not just a job for government. It requires collective action across a wide range of issues, at national and local levels, by public bodies, private companies, and above all, civic society at large.

"Our first question must always be: 'How can people contribute to building an integrated England?'"

Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, said the emphasis on voluntary work was "misguided": "The vast majority of people in Britain are not members of any local church, religious group or community, and so to lay such emphasis on religious identities as being the ones most important for encouraging voluntary work or community building is misguided."

Rob Berkeley, director of the Runnymede Trust race equality thinktank, added that Pickles' solutions "miss the point".

"The Secretary of State appears to have completely misunderstood the problems we face in building a successful multi-ethnic society, and the solutions proposed as a result simply miss the point," he said.