New Clause 1 — Judaeo-Christian tradition

– in the House of Commons at 9:30 am on 16 January 2015.

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“In observing the provisions in this Act, councils shall keep in mind the pre-eminence of the Judaeo-Christian tradition as the historical foundation of the United Kingdom.”—(Sir Edward Leigh.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Panel of Chairs, Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Panel of Chairs

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 4, page 1, line 15, Clause 1, at end add—

‘(4) Subsections (1) and (2) do not reduce the obligations of the authority not to discriminate against—

(a) those with religious beliefs different from those supported or espoused in the prayers or other observances referred to in this section; or

(b) those without religious beliefs, and to treat them equally in line with the Public Sector Equality Duty under the Equality Act 2010, section 149.’

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Commission, Chair, Public Accounts Commission

I warmly welcome the Bill, which seeks to provide a legislative basis for continuing the tradition, wherever it may be desired, of prayers before meetings in local government. The purpose of new clause 1, without at all inhibiting the freedom of councils and local authorities to employ or not employ prayer at their meetings, is to ask those bodies to keep in mind the religious heritage of our country and the religious foundations of the state, which are of a Judaeo-Christian nature. That is what my new clause proposes—having regard to the Judeao-Christian nature of our country.

Helston town council in Cornwall came in for a bit of flak in 2010, when resident Pat Woodhouse attacked the council for having “Christian-only prayers”. The local newspaper reported her to have said:

“Let’s face it, we are supposed to be politically correct now.”

What authority has determined that “we” are “supposed” to be politically correct? Why should citizens of any philosophical or religious world view unthinkingly surrender to the totalitarian and ever-shifting ideology of political correctness? In the Helston case, Ms Woodhouse is reported to have said:

“If anyone really took offence they could criticise the council. It isn’t right. With respect to the reverend who opens the meeting with a prayer, is it politically correct to only have Christian prayers at the beginning of the meeting?”

Note that she uses the word “if” anyone took offence—we are dealing with a pure hypothetical.

Doubtless, opponents of Christian prayer can cite actual cases where offence has been taken by someone, but I suspect it is pretty rare. We are supposed to be mature adults. I believe that anyone who is grievously offended by the Christian nature of prayers in councils needs to have some regard to the roots of our country. I am sure that both sides of the argument agree that we should not be a nation of triumphant Christian supremacists, but nor should we be a nation of molly-coddlers seeking to wrap the entire population in a protective layer of liberal gauze. We should abide by the principles of tolerance and respect: tolerance for belief or non-belief, twinned with respect not just for this country’s present, but its history.

We in Britain are known for our adherence to tradition. I would argue that this Parliament is the most beholden to tradition of any legislature in the world. Chesterton famously described tradition as

“the democracy of the dead.”

For when we make our decisions today, why should we not take into account the Britons of centuries past? Of course, the reality today is that the Christianity associated with the state—prayers before meetings, Remembrance day services, the role of the Church of England—is a thin whitewash over the official reigning ideology of liberalism. That is true, but these acts, be they prayer or worship, tie us intimately with our ancestors. I believe that that is what conservatism is all about. They connect us, I dare say, with the communion of Saints, four of whose number—George, Andrew, David and Patrick—serve as the traditional patrons and protectors of these nations. One can see their images in mosaic form looking down upon us in the Central Lobby of this Palace. Even in law we have the four quarter days of the year: Lady day, the feast of the Annunciation; Midsummer, the feast of St John the Baptist; Michaelmas, the feast of the Archangel Michael; and Christmas, the great feast of the Incarnation of Our Lord, which is celebrated so widely among those of profound religious belief or of none. The reason the tax year starts on 6 April is that it is the Gregorian equivalent of Lady day in the old Julian calendar that we in Britain held out in using for so long.

It is important to recall that other laws reinforce the Judaeo-Christian foundations of our society, and they should be celebrated in prayers before our meetings. Nobody is suggesting that should be compulsory; it is simply the decision of the council. Schools are still required to provide

“daily collective worship wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character”.

That is in our legislation. The Guardian finds that “incredible”, and it is worth noting that while we Conservatives can take credit for this requirement in passing the Education Reform Act 1988, The Guardian says that this was last reaffirmed in 1998 under new Labour—so presumably it is not that controversial.

It should be recalled that the etymology of the word “worship” comes from “worth ship”, the act of attributing or recognising worth, honour, esteem or distinction. With their conversion to Christianity, the Anglo-Saxon kings could no longer exert an arbitrary power over the kingdoms and peoples, but were subject to and restrained by, they realised, a higher power. This worship or esteeming of God laid the foundations for His creation—man—with numerous consequent ideas flowing forth about the dignity of the individual and our freedom of conscience. After all, what value is there to worship if it is not done as an act of free will?

Even more recent aspects of British society have Christian roots. Lord Alton, a former Member of this House, now in the other place, has written eloquently about the Christian foundations of the welfare state, noting that

“the thoughts, words and actions of the Christian community were central to bringing” the welfare state “to fruition”.

Is it any wonder that what we can fairly describe as traditionally Christian countries are the ones that are today so tolerant of those of other faiths or indeed of none? The traditionally Christian societies are the most successful economically because they are tolerant of all other beliefs. It is that tolerance that has laid our economic success.

When we look at the past 50 years and observe officially atheist states such as the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China or officially Islamic republics such as Iran and Pakistan, we find their level of tolerance disappointing at best. Would someone rather be an atheist in Tehran where the mullahs rule the roost or in Beirut where the political and legal culture took root during the decades in which Lebanon had a Christian majority? I suspect that the overwhelming majority of British atheists are mature and respectful people, tolerant and perhaps even appreciative of the Christian foundations of the state and society. Rare is the man or woman given to sudden fits of apoplectic rage at the appearance of a nativity scene in public around Christmastide.

It has been rare in our time that an event has promoted as much comment and discussion on the nature of freedom and its responsibilities as the recent tragedy in Paris. France, of course, has a unique status in British society, serving simultaneously as our favourite traditional enemy as well as our closest friend, whose culture we most enjoy, love and revel in more than that of any other country. Britons will be the first gently to mock the French and some of their silly ways—and we have some silly ways— but our reaction to the recent atrocities committed in Paris has shown that we are the first to rush to their defence and express our solidarity with the French people. Chesterton was very prescient when he restated that to have a right to do something is different from being right in doing so. We believe in the freedom of speech, and while we hope that this freedom is used responsibly, we know that any attempts by the state to act as a determinant or guarantor of what is and what is not said is not a responsible exercise of freedom and is inherently threatening to our liberty. That is why I was a prominent supporter of the Reform Section 5 campaign about the right to offend other people. In this society, we have a right to offend others. If, dare I say it, prayers before council meetings offend some people—I doubt if anyone will be very offended—I believe that it is an inherent right nevertheless and it should be exercised.

It may astonish the House for a moment, but I confess that there are some aspects of political correctness that I find welcome. Political correctness to a certain extent incorporates a good old-fashioned sense of politeness. I am not a Muslim, so satirical depictions of Mohammed are ostensibly none of my business, but I do not understand the mentality that seeks intentionally to degrade and insult someone else’s most deeply held beliefs. To me, it seems plainly rude and ungentlemanly, and while these terms are viewed by some in our society as old-fashioned, it is just such forms of tradition and social dignity that say we should not deliberately intend to insult someone’s religion. That is up to the individual, not the state. It is such ideas, too, that affirm that we should not go slaughtering people because they insult us and our religion. In the end, being outrageous is all too often employed by the unoriginal and uninspired as a handy substitute for talent.

This is an opportunity to think more generally about the role of religion in our society and the world. What a shame, but also how natural, that religion is so often in the headlines because of warfare and conflict—we are all familiar with the so-called Islamic state. However, there are no headlines about the small kindnesses, the little acts of love and dignity, that people all around the world undertake, inspired either wholly or in part by their faith. I see no harm in councils’ proclaiming that faith before their meetings.

Recently, in the House, we debated the subject of Britons who have gone abroad to commit acts of terror and fight as jihadists. What is striking is that so many of them are not immigrants to this land, but were born and raised here. Perhaps a generation before them was raised in a religious context, whether individuals were personally pious or not. The increasing absence of religion from our society makes it more difficult for us to comprehend Islam. That absence also creates personal difficulties for many people who seek a deeper meaning in life. I believe that a little religion, such as prayers before council meetings, actually prevents outrageous intolerance.

Photo of David Nuttall David Nuttall Conservative, Bury North 9:45, 16 January 2015

My hon. Friend is making a powerful point in support of his new clause, but will he confirm that, because of the way in which it is drafted, nothing in it would restrict prayers to those from the Judaeo-Christian tradition? It only requires that that tradition be kept “in mind”. Could not prayers from other religions take place as well?

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Commission, Chair, Public Accounts Commission

I drafted my new clause carefully. It is meant to constitute a serious contribution to the debate. I am not arguing that there should, or must, be prayers before a council meeting. Of course, no one needs to go to them anyway. It is simply a decision that is made at the time of the council meeting. Nor am I arguing that the prayers must be of a Judaeo-Christian nature. I am, however, making the serious point, in this House of Commons, that this is our past. This is our foundation. This is what has made us free.

We cannot just say that we must have a “time for reflection” before council meetings, and that anything goes, because if we do that we lose contact with our history. I think that in losing contact with our history of tolerance—which is the foundation, or essence, of the British state—we actually encourage religious extremism.

It is often people in whose families there is absolutely no religion who are led astray into following bizarre sects and the like.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

It is not just our past, though, is it? It is also our present. In Parliament, we start every day with prayers, and those prayers are Christian prayers; they are not from any other religion. However, people do not have to participate in them if they do not wish to. My hon. Friend is much more religious than I am, but I am not aware of anyone who objects to starting the day with prayers. It is actually a rather good way in which to start the day. Wouldn’t it be nice if local authorities started their proceedings in the same way as Parliament?

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Commission, Chair, Public Accounts Commission

That sums it up: wouldn’t it be nice? No one is using the language of compulsion. Wouldn’t it be nice? What is wrong with a moment for reflection?

Photo of Jake Berry Jake Berry Conservative, Rossendale and Darwen

In Parliament, when we start our day with prayers, we obviously start our day with prayers of the Church of England, which is the established faith in our country. If my hon. Friend wished to enshrine the traditions of this country in the Bill, did he not consider enshrining the Judaeo-Christian tradition of the Church of England rather than any other Judaeo-Christian tradition?

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Commission, Chair, Public Accounts Commission

I think I would have been criticised if I had done that, although I should have been happy to do it. Speaking for myself—if it is at all relevant—I am very ecumenical. I serve on the Lincoln cathedral council, and I have absolutely no objection to taking part in Church of England services and Church of England prayers; nor, I am sure, does anyone else who is sitting here. However, I think that if I had tried to lay down a particular denomination, I would have been severely criticised. As far as I am aware, the Church of England is a Christian denomination. A broad encompassing new clause which talks about Christianity does not prevent Church of England prayers from taking place. So I am afraid that I cannot accept that argument, but if my hon. Friend—who tabled the Bill—wants to advance it, it is for him to do so.

Secular liberalism often purports to have the answer to religion. Everyone and everything is free, and people can do whatever they want. Yet there is a curious aversion to those who choose to do religious things, especially if they are done in public. Why do some people have an aversion to others having prayers before Parliament and before council meetings? I am not sure that I understand that aversion, although I am sure it is sincerely felt.

In reality, the liberal secularist perspective is as much an all-encompassing and behaviour-determining world view as Christianity, Judaism, Islam or any religion. In purporting, whether explicitly or implicitly, to be “above” religion, liberal secularism is making truth claims just as strongly as religions do. Somehow this can be viewed as reassuring, as we are just dealing with one religion or world view as we have dealt with others. The new clause seeks to reaffirm our connection to the past through the actions of the present. There is a grave danger of we in Britain becoming severed from our roots, and lacking an understanding of our history. Such a deracinated population would be much easier to manipulate, whether by a Hitler, a Stalin, or some other modern-day tyrant whose dominion we fear. Asking not even that we affirm the Judaeo-Christian tradition of our country, but merely that councils keep it in mind, is one small way of keeping us in touch with our roots. That is why I propose my new clause.

May I end by reading out that marvellous prayer which we used to say in this House, and which is worth quoting from? We used to say that we

“humbly beseech thee to send down thy Heavenly Wisdom from above, to direct and guide us in all our consultations; and grant that, we having thy fear always before our eyes, and laying aside all private interests, prejudices, and partial affections, the result of all our counsels may be to the glory of thy blessed Name, the maintenance of true Religion and Justice, the safety, honour, and happiness of the Queen, the publick wealth, peace and tranquillity of the Realm, and the uniting and knitting together of the hearts of all persons and estates within the same”.

What glorious language from our established Church, from the King James Bible, from the prayers before Parliament. I commend my new clause to the House.

Photo of James Arbuthnot James Arbuthnot Conservative, North East Hampshire

I do not want to take up too much time because there is a lot of business to be got through this morning and I do not want to hold it up. I agree with much of what my hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh says. He speaks, of course, as a prominent Roman Catholic, so I thought his answer to the last intervention on him was glorious. I have a probing amendment—amendment No. 4—which I almost certainly will not press to a Division.

I am a politician so my natural course is to wish to please people—if someone does not have that trait, they are unlikely to be elected—and so it is rather odd that I shall spend much of this morning disappointing people. First, I shall disappoint people by saying I am not in the least religious. My father was once the Second Church Estates Commissioner, and I was christened and confirmed, but since then I have lost those beliefs and the faith that I once had, and I am perfectly comfortable with that. This is the first time, however, that I have ever acknowledged that in public. It may be true that the pressure on a Conservative politician in particular to keep quiet about not being religious is very similar to the pressure that there has been about keeping quiet about being gay. For the avoidance of doubt, I am not gay either, but I just want to say that it is telling that it has taken me 28 years in this House—and, frankly, the knowledge that I will not be standing at the next election—to make this point.

I remember that when Peter Walker was a Minister answering questions in the House, he was asked something like whether his motivation for supporting a particularly right-wing policy had been sycophancy or cowardice, and his answer was, “Almost certainly both.” I would like to give the same answer for my having kept quiet about not being religious. So I shall disappoint some of my constituents, some members of my family—many of whom are strongly religious—and some hon. Members and hon. Friends by saying that I believe that the National Secular Society has a point: not everyone is religious.

In order to reserve a seat in the House on a crowded business day, such as Budget day, we have to put in a prayer card and come into the Chamber for Prayers. I do not have a major problem with that because I was brought up in a Christian household in a country that has an established Church of England, but really, why should I have to do that if I am not religious? It does seem to be a relic of the past. My hon. Friend said that this was our past and, although he was brought up short by an intervention from my hon. Friend Philip Davies, I think he was right. More importantly, the requirement to pray in order to reserve a seat seems out of touch with the country that we politicians are meant to represent.

Photo of James Arbuthnot James Arbuthnot Conservative, North East Hampshire

I will give way to my hon. Friend, who is himself a prominent churchwarden.

Photo of David Nuttall David Nuttall Conservative, Bury North

My hon. Friend mentioned that we had to pray in order to reserve a seat. Actually, as I understand it, we simply have to be in our place. There is no requirement to offer up any prayers. We simply have to be here and stand, or sit, in our place.

Photo of James Arbuthnot James Arbuthnot Conservative, North East Hampshire

That is a fair point, and I will come on to that in a moment when I talk about the potential contents of the prayer.

I was saying that the practice seems out of touch with the majority of the people we represent, because only a tiny proportion of our constituents go to church. According to the 2006 Church census, just over 6% of British people go to church. In a YouGov poll in 2011, 34% of UK citizens said that they believed in God or gods. However, according to the 2008 European social survey, 46.94% of UK citizens—nearly half—never pray. I find that an odd statistic, because it implies that 20% of UK citizens pray but do not believe in God.

Photo of Jake Berry Jake Berry Conservative, Rossendale and Darwen

Part of the Bill is about celebrating and protecting the traditions of our land. Of course, I believe in Father Christmas, which is one of the reasons that I am happy to celebrate Christmas, but how many people who celebrate Christmas still truly believe in Father Christmas, as opposed to appearing to do so simply because they enjoy the traditions and celebrations of that time of year?

Photo of James Arbuthnot James Arbuthnot Conservative, North East Hampshire

My right hon. Friend the First Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons used to give a speech about the really difficult questions that a Leader of the Opposition could ask the Prime Minister. The most difficult question that he was able to come up with was “Does the Prime Minister believe in Father Christmas?”, because whatever answer the Prime Minister gave, he would frankly be scuppered. So I shall not answer my hon. Friend’s wonderful question. Instead, I shall move on to tell him what is wrong with his Bill, if I may. I shall do so in the most gentle way, because I know that he is motivated by the good of the country and of the people he represents.

Of course I know that my hon. Friend’s Bill would not force people to pray, as my hon. Friend Mr Nuttall has just said. I know that it would not force councils to decide to include prayers as part of their business, although the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Philip Davies proposes that councils “shall”—rather than “may”—include time for prayers. I shall come to that point later. I also know that the Bill would leave the decision to local authorities, and what could be fairer than that?

However, the Bill would allow the majority of local councillors to include, as part of the council’s business, a practice that might be embarrassing and possibly even anathema to other councillors. Prayer is not anathema to me, as I was brought up in a Christian household; I just find it rather quaint. If people think that their god listens to what they ask for rather than what their god thinks is right and appropriate, that is a matter for them—it does not bother me. But why need I sit through it? Let me move on to the possibility of it being anathema. What am I to do if I am a local councillor where religious observance is to be part of the business? What am I do to do if the prayers offered actually are anathema to me?

Let us suppose that a council is made up of a majority of fundamentalist Muslims, who decide that the religious observance should be not only Islamic, but radically and possibly violently so. Then let us suppose that a prayer is offered which calls for retribution on those who draw cartoons of the Prophet. I share the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough that what Charlie Hebdo was doing was impolite.

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 10:00, 16 January 2015

Surely the right hon. Gentleman realises, as most people in the Chamber will, that in such circumstances the appropriate behaviour would be to call the police immediately, because the gentleman in question who was giving those prayers would have incited people to hatred?

Photo of James Arbuthnot James Arbuthnot Conservative, North East Hampshire

Yes, but one can create a prayer that does not incite people to hatred but which nevertheless remains anathema to the people listening to it. Let me give the hon. Gentleman another example, in a Christian context. What happens if the prayers call on God to grant enlightenment to those who support gay marriage? That might be anathema to some of the councillors who do support gay marriage. What should one do as a councillor in those circumstances? Should one heckle the priest or the imam? Should one walk out, even though, as a councillor, it is one’s right and indeed one’s duty to be in the council meeting, preferably for the whole time.

So the National Secular Society, which I would like to thank for drawing some of these issues to my attention—I am not a member of the NSS and I doubt I ever will be—has a point when it says:

“The absence of prayers from the formal business of local authority meetings does not impede the religious freedoms of believers or deny anybody the right to pray.”

If local authorities want to hold a moment of reflection at the beginning of a meeting, they can do so. If councillors wish to meet for prayers before the meeting, they can do so, and no change in the law is needed to achieve it. So it is the principle of the Bill that is of concern to me, but the proposal tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough highlights some of the concerns that undermine the value of the principle of the Bill.

My amendment 4 is about the public sector equality duty, whose effect is similar to the first amendment to the US constitution, which states:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.

That has been interpreted in the United States by a majority opinion of the Supreme Court in the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway, which was decided in May of last year, to require that prayer said before local authority meetings should not discriminate against minority faiths in determining who may offer a prayer.

The rather odd effect of that decision was that at a meeting of Lake Worth city commission last month the invocation was given by an atheist called Preston Smith, who began it with the words:

“May the efforts of this council blend the righteousness of Allah with the all-knowing wisdom of Satan.”

The fact that the effect of the public sector equality duty on this Bill is that local authorities choosing to hold religious observance in their meetings will not then be able lawfully to discriminate against the observances of the religion of Satanism might surprise my hon. Friends, but it seems to me to be a clear and unavoidable interpretation of the effect of the two statutes.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

Each time I have risen in support of this Bill, I have sought to emphasise my reason for doing so, and it is that this Bill seeks to protect a freedom of choice, and indeed a freedom of local choice. This Bill makes it clear that the choice of including prayers, or not, is for the local authority alone. Equally, I do not believe that it is right to go further than that. To go further would undermine our trust in local authorities to take account of the views and traditions of their communities and to make the right decisions.

I speak from my own experience in local government, in an area of many and diverse faiths and of strong communities, religious and non-religious, where the inclusion of prayer was something that united those communities rather than divided them. In our council, prayer and reflection was an opportunity to bring people together. So many of our prayers, which were led each year by the chaplain to the mayor—of whatever faith—contained universal messages that underlined shared values, a sense of unity and community that reflected our diversity. I am sorry to disappoint Sir Edward Leigh, as I am minded not to support his proposed new clause today should he push it to a vote. It seems to me that we would be stepping beyond the important line and risk fettering the discretion that we want to give to public bodies to make their own localised decision.

I say to Mr Arbuthnot—he is indeed a gentleman and I shall certainly miss him when he leaves this House—that I agree with the sentiment and intentions behind amendment 4. But I am confident that local authorities and public bodies, all of which are already subject to the public sector equality duty, will exercise their choice with the utmost sensitivity to their communities. We should trust their judgment and believe that they will make the right choices and not the wrong ones.

It is important that we maintain that trust in anticipation that local authorities will be sensitive to local communities and their responsibilities within the law. I remain hopeful that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his new clause.

Photo of Penny Mordaunt Penny Mordaunt The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

I congratulate my hon. Friend Jake Berry on his work on the Bill, the aims of which are wholly supported by the Government. There was a useful discussion about the Bill in Committee where support for it was clear. There was recognition that the Bill is really about freedom rather than compulsion: the freedom to pray or not to pray; the freedom for a local authority collectively to make a decision to hold prayers as part of official business, or not; and the freedom of individual councillors to attend the meeting during that item of business, or not—there would be no requirement to sit through it, as my right hon. Friend Mr Arbuthnot said.

In Committee, Robert Flello described the Bill’s provisions on giving local authorities the freedom to hold prayers as part of official business as a measure so gentle that someone would have to work very hard to find a way of taking any sort of umbrage or insult from it. That is an excellent way of describing the provisions and intent of the Bill; they are indeed gentle. It is worth reminding ourselves why the Bill is necessary at all. The Bill gives councils that statutory power and gives them the freedom to pray.

I will not be supporting the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh. It is not consistent with the spirit of the Bill, which is about trusting local people to make local decisions. We should trust them to do that. It would be wrong to single out any one particular faith or to identify any one particular tradition. The Bill as drafted is absolutely correct to celebrate our multi-faith society and because it gives local authorities freedom rather than compelling them to take certain actions, it is not necessary to require them to be mindful of their obligations not to discriminate against those with religious beliefs and those without religious beliefs. There is no requirement for anyone who does not wish to attend town hall prayers to do so, so this provision is not necessary.

With those reassurances, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire will not press the new clause and the amendment.

Photo of Jake Berry Jake Berry Conservative, Rossendale and Darwen

I have a lot of sympathy with the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh, as it sits very closely with my own beliefs. I believe that there is a direct link between praying for things within one’s own religion and things happening in one’s life. I am a Christian and I am proud of it and, in a way, the Bill has given me the opportunity on occasion to bear witness to my own faith and the belief I have in the power of religion in our society.

Although I agree with the sentiments of the new clause, I do not think it should be supported, largely because the Bill is permissive in nature and has sought to encompass the wide group of faiths in our society today. Much of the criticism of the Bill has focused on the fact that people of different faiths or no faith at all would be or would feel discriminated against in the council chamber if prayers were to be held. I do not think that the Bill as drafted could be accused of that, and it was described in Committee, as the Minister has just said, as the gentlest of Bills.

It would be a mistake to single out any particular religion on the face of the Bill. We are a multi-faith society. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough spoke of the different faiths in our society and of how people of all faiths and of none enjoy living in a society that acknowledges and respects their faith, so it would be a mistake to remove from councils the freedom to decide their own business. The entire Bill has been about freedom and the freedom of local authorities to make individual decisions about how they conduct their business.

Photo of David Nuttall David Nuttall Conservative, Bury North

Can we be clear? My hon. Friend refers to taking away the freedom of local authorities to decide these matters, but I do not think that anything in the new clause proposed by my hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh takes away any freedom. If it were to be passed, it would merely require that they keep in mind the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

Photo of Jake Berry Jake Berry Conservative, Rossendale and Darwen

I thank my hon. Friend and near neighbour in Bury North for raising that point. I understand it, but in a multi-faith society in which all faiths are respected and acknowledged and in which people of no faith are also respected and acknowledged it is important that we do not prefer in legislation one particular faith. He might disagree with that view, but I think that the Bill as drafted is acceptable to people of all faiths and of none and I fear that to start preferring one faith might put division into our council chambers where none needs to exist or should exist.

My hon. Friend mentioned Ms Woodhouse, who objected so strongly to council prayers. If the Bill is enacted, there is a way for her to make her objections heard: she can stand for the local council, get elected, argue in the council chamber that there should not be prayers and win the support of the majority of her colleagues. There will then be no obligation on them to have prayers. If she finds the issue so offensive, that course of action is open to Ms Woodhouse.

My right hon. Friend Mr Arbuthnot made an interesting and thoughtful speech about the pressure that colleagues sometimes feel to profess faith when they have none or not to profess faith when they have a deep-seated belief. That shines a light on the pressure that there is in public life and the interplay between faith and politics.

The Bill does not seek to define what constitutes a prayer—nor, importantly, what constitutes religion. Prayer will be different for every individual Member who prays, has ever prayed or has ever thought about praying, and so will religion. Even an individual’s prayers, whether daily, weekly or in the evening, will be done differently each time. The Bill provides a practical, workable, sensible approach, giving councils the opportunity to include in their business time for prayers, other religious observances or observances connected with any philosophical belief that they think appropriate.

Tolerance and religion are joint values that bind society together. We are a multi-faith nation, and we are stronger for that; that is why this is a multi-faith Bill. The Bill’s strengths lie in its simplicity—it makes provision not for any particular faith, but for all faiths. As has been said repeatedly during its passage through the House, the Bill does not compel anyone to take part in prayers.

I hope that, with those assurances, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire and my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough will withdraw their amendments.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Commission, Chair, Public Accounts Commission 10:15, 16 January 2015

I am disappointed, particularly by the Minister’s reply to, I thought, my comprehensive introduction—but there we are. I have been here long enough to know that we keep soldiering on.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Commission, Chair, Public Accounts Commission

I’ll get over it.

I am also disappointed that my hon. Friend Jake Berry does not want to accept my amendment. I repeat that my amendment does not require prayers in the Christian tradition. It was put forward in a serious way, but my hon. Friend says it is not appropriate for this country, which is a multi-faith and presumably multicultural society. Without wanting to repeat what I said in my speech, I should say that that was precisely my point. We should have regard for the fact that our roots are of a Judeo-Christian nature. I was simply asking councils to have regard to it.

Much as I feel strongly about the issue, I am aware that the Lobbies of the House may not be seething with hon. Members this morning; if we were to have a vote, there might not be the required number to enable the Bill to continue. I cannot risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It is too risky to have a vote for that reason. However, I still have one or two friends left in the world and some are in the other place. I shall have a word with them in the hope that the other place might return to the issue. Meanwhile, in a spirit of good will, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.