Iain Duncan Smith has made a strong defence of the role of religion in public life, warning that British politicians have a ‘ridiculous’ attitude of not wanting to talk about the issue.
The Work and Pensions Secretary said that voters’ reaction to the Paris attacks showed how important faith was to many people and underlined that it was ‘an integral part’ of our lives.
In an interview with HuffPost UK, Mr Duncan Smith said he had the ‘highest respect’ for faith-based charities who were working to tackle alcohol and drug abuse and other deep-rooted social problems.
Speaking ahead of tonight’s Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) Awards 2015, he also suggested that Kids Company-style problems with charities could be avoided by a major Government expansion of his radical plans for social investment bonds.
He praised Chris Eubank, current star of ITV1’s I’m A Celebrity, for the way he’d used boxing to turn around his life, and highlighted a Hackney boxing academy that had won a previous CSJ Award.
The Cabinet Minister also confirmed he would be returning to Easterhouse in Glasgow, where he made a high profile trip in 2001 to witness the area’s poverty at first hand, but warned that a recent SNP invite felt like ‘a little political device’.
He admitted that it was “not easy being in government” and making difficult decisions, but it was worth it “as long as you hold in your mind and in your heart the idea that what you’re trying to do is to improve lives”.
Mr Duncan Smith revealed that he edits the CSJ charity award videos, and confessed that if he’d not gone into politics, he would have loved to become a film editor.
In the interview, he pointed out that both faith-based and secular groups do great work in helping those in most need.
But he said that Britain’s political culture was not as comfortable as other countries in talking about religion.
“Everywhere it’s a natural discourse. If you go to Italy, nobody would get bothered about faith [being involved],” he said. “I think the political class [in Britain] is kind of ridiculous about it, if you ask me.
“The CSJ is not a faith-based organisation, but I don’t care whether you’re faith-based or not faith-based, If what you do is to change lives then you’re welcome.
“People don’t like the idea of sometimes changing lives and sometimes people converting to faith, that’s been around for thousands of years and I just think sometimes politicians get very wary about it.
“But my simple answer is if you look back in the 19th century and into the early 20th century, who were the organisations that were driving change, whether it was anti-slavery or the ragged school movement? It was faith-based charities. Who was ending the factory hours, who got children off the factory floor? It was again campaigns faith-based.”
Mr Duncan Smith, who is a Roman Catholic, added that “faith itself is an integral part of our lives” and pointed to the public reaction to the terror attacks in Paris, when a ‘Pray for Paris’ movement started on social media, as proof of its importance.
“We are a much more secular society now in the UK. But it is interesting when an event like Paris or whatever happens, people need to know that there is something else in their lives,” he said.
“And all I say is that for those who make faith their driving force, I have nothing but the highest respect for the work that they do. There are others for whom they just do this because it’s not faith. But there is another faith, their personal faith in other human beings. I don’t mind who it is, or what they do, because if the outcome is lives changed, you just have to admire them.”
The Work and Pensions Secretary said that the Kids Company saga, where the London charity had to close amid claims of irregularities, had ‘made life difficult’ for other charities.
“The charitable sector will be the first to tell you that it has made life a bit difficult for them, because for whatever reasons people will question how it is you give money to an organisation - and I’m not pre-guessing what happened - and [whether] checks and balances may not be done properly.”
But Mr Duncan Smith said that the way to avoid similar situations in future was the wider adoption of social investment bonds, new financial products that allowed investors to give money to charities with strict targets for performance.
“The solution to this is the social investment bond because it is structured, you are not giving money to a charity. The charity now stands on its record and you are able to measure that effect as it goes through,” he said.
He revealed that the Government was set to expand the scheme, and had the backing of Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin. An ‘Innovation Fund’ with £30m has been piloting the idea for the past two years and has now been adopted by the Cabinet office.
“I hope eventually to shift over from the basis that charities go cap in hand all the time to local authorities and government to move to the point where a charity with a good programme that change lives and thus saves money now in its own right gets funded and not funded for one year or two years but funded for say five years.
"It makes them more disciplined about what they deliver, not peripherals, or schemes that somebody thought was a great wheeze, just stick to the plan. It makes the local authorities commit to a longer term plan for charities. To my mind, that is the ultimate solution to this issue for charities.
“I have pushed this like mad in Government. I’m not alone in this by the way, Oliver Lewin is keen. We are looking now to do much bigger social investment bonds.”
Mr Duncan Smith defended charities accused of ‘wasting’ money and admitted that Government itself often makes ‘quite blunt’ change compared to the focused work on local groups.
“My instinct on this is by and large the State’s a very blunt weapon. Charities are a very focused weapon. A charity knows that it’s trying to save lives in a community of may be 10,000 people. The State deals with communities of maybe 60-plus million. So when we make change and it goes nationwide, quite often it can be quite blunt.
“So charities have a role to play in alerting us to the bluntness of this and also helping us deliver the objective of some of the effect. I don’t think there’s an either/or. I think by and large charities do things government simply can’t do. And to attack charities for waste of money is a bit rich from government.”
Referring to a request from the SNP MP Natalie McGarry for him to visit Easterhouse in Glasgow, Mr Duncan Smith said: “I will go up. It’s not just Easterhouse. I’ve had some great friends in places like Gallowgate and others.
“It’s not easy being in government to be quite frank with you, making some of the decisions you have to make.
“But that notwithstanding, as long as you are hold in your mind and in your heart the idea that as long as what you’re trying to do is to improve lives then I hope the net effect of what you do at the end of the day does actually work."
He suggested that he felt the SNP invitation was a political ‘device’.
“It’s always nice to visit old friends. I’ve always said that I will go to these places. I think that was a little political that invitation from her [McGarry]. I don’t need invitations to go to various places because I stay in touch with lots of people.
“They don’t have to worry. I’ve seen people on a number of occasions, and spoken to them, from Easterhouse. There’s a little political device there involved, which we don’t need.”
Referring to the power of boxing to change lives such as those of former world champion Chris Eubank, he said: “I’ve met Chris on a number of occasions. And boxing completely was what turned his life around. Boxing has a particular thing about it because it has always dealt with kids from very poor backgrounds for the most part.
“I used to box many years ago - I wasn’t a great boxer, I wasn’t going to threaten anybody in that sense - but I have boxed. And the thing about boxing training is it’s very disciplined. There is no room in boxing for rebellion, it’s very structured, it’s hard, the training exhausts you, which is important.
“You talk to any sportsman like Frank Bruno and he will say his life was saved by boxing. I know it’s ironic because some people think boxing is a brutal sport but what Frank Bruno will tell you is he’d have been on the streets committing crime had he not had a skill and somebody got him into a gym and the rest is history. And that’s the case for lots of footballers and so on.”