Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill
Orders of the Day
Alistair Burt (Shadow Minister, Communities and Local Government, Deputy Chairman (Local Government), The Conservative Party; North East Bedfordshire, Conservative)
I am grateful for the clarification. The hon. Gentleman will not be the first colleague not to have been entirely accurately represented by the BBC. I am also delighted that the honorary president of the National Secular Society now welcomes the opportunity for politicians in the public square to put forward a defence of their views based on faith.
When I cast my votes on embryo research, abortion or the concept of fatherhood, on what do my constituents expect me to base my view? Is it their opinions and views? Certainly. Is it evidence from different sources about the impact of legislation? Yes, of course. At some stage, I must, as we all must, choose between competing views. But what else do I base my views on? I have a Christian world view, which impacts on those issues. It is not much of a secret, either in this place or my constituency. I do not believe in an impersonal universe—one made up of random collections of matter and energy. I believe that there is a God. Among other things, I believe that his plan for his universe holds life to be dear and sacred. No other understanding of my world makes sense to me.
I also hold a view, deeply influenced by Jesus's parable of the prodigal son, that God's laws for us are not designed to punish, to hurt or to prevent good things happening, but to warn us away from things that do us harm, and to safeguard the creation that he loves. Modern society provides plenty of evidence of the truth of that. It is a positive interpretation of God that makes sense to millions.
My Christian tradition also tells me that God works with us to interpret and unveil his creation. We do so with trepidation and humility, recognising both our fallibility and the viewpoints of others, which we must respect. Dr. Taylor is entirely right: there is a moderate Christian view to be put. That view does respect others. There is also an obligation on us to handle the arguments carefully and not to over-sensationalise either the arguments or those who hold to a different view. In relation to medicine or physics, we do not know everything, but scientific revelation, in which many Christians are involved, uncovers more every day.
By combining my beliefs, my knowledge and the evaluation of what is new, I come to a conclusion about how I might vote in this place on the matters before us today. But I cannot see why my vote or opinion should carry less weight than those of others because it has a base of faith, nor why any reference that I should make to God in that context should be considered bizarre by anyone.
Just over a month ago, The Independent on Sunday launched an attack—or what constitutes an attack for The Independent on Sunday—on a group of 12 Members of Parliament of all parties for having in their offices interns from the Christian charity CARE. Beneath the emotive and misleading headline "Evangelicals fund MPs ahead of embryo vote" was an article that was equally distorting, trading on the ignorance of the public to suggest that our interns' passes—the same as those held by 13,000 other people—gave them privileged access with which they could influence MPs, and that the position of some of the MPs mentioned in the article, such as mine in the Opposition Whips' Office, would allow them to exert undue influence on colleagues. There was also the old chestnut that all this was based on what had happened in the United States and heralded the rise of the evangelical right—ironically, just as that influence is, quite properly in my view, in decline over there. That last point must have been especially galling to colleagues who may be further to the political left than me.
However, the heart of the attack, and my reason for raising it tonight, was contained in the paper's leader column, and in a quotation from Richard Dawkins:
"If only these restless busybodies would keep their prejudices to themselves, nobody would object. But they can't resist inflicting their ignorant opinions on others."
I presume that that must be some other Richard Dawkins rather than the one who, I believe, has made a small fortune out of his prejudices by inflicting them on the public; but that is by the bye. The leader column also referred to "infiltration", and stated:
"We do not accept...that the religious beliefs of a minority should be allowed a veto on medical research that benefits society as a whole."
Well, nor do I. Have I missed something? Does my vote tonight or next week constitute a veto in the House? Who within the Christian community has ever suggested that we do or should exercise such a veto? But why should my vote be devalued, or considered less well-judged or lacking in integrity, because it stems from a Christian or other faith base?
The article also failed to let the public know that, despite the allegedly shadowy influence on us, MPs with CARE interns do not universally vote the same way on these issues, and I suspect that they will not do so tonight or next week. We reflect the same diversity of opinion as many parts of the Church itself, because our basic principles are rounded by our experience and judgment. Society should not be afraid of that, or lack confidence in those who form their views in the belief that their judgments are ultimately accountable to a power beyond this House.
On Saturday I marched through my constituency with a group representing Christians from many denominations who wanted to draw attention to the "turn on the tap" campaign, which highlights the need for clean water throughout the developing world. Yesterday and today, we listened with heartbreak and humility as the mother of the murdered teenager Jimmy Mizen spoke of the pity in her heart—not bitterness—for the family of the youth who had brutally killed her son.
The Christian love and faith that informed my constituents of their commitments to their neighbours overseas and which drives millions to give themselves and their resources to work all over the world, and God's sense of forgiveness which filled the heart of a grieving mother, would rightly—I think—be praised and lauded by society, and by all of us here. Why should such a wellspring of goodness be considered unworthy of portrayal in the public square? When does that faith turn into the "prejudice" and "dogma" that opponents throw at Christians who have views on this issue? Why should the faith that gives me and hundreds of other Members of Parliament their inspiration to be in public life, their sense of justice, their commitment to others, their views on life and death, their reference point beyond solely the beat of the party drum or the passing fancy of a modern fashion be considered a threat to this place, rather than a voice that millions will recognise?
We may not always be right. We may not always be in a majority. However, it is not for those who disagree with us to seek to deny our views a fair hearing.