Clause 1 — Powers of councils

– in the House of Commons at 10:15 am on 16 January 2015.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of James Arbuthnot James Arbuthnot Conservative, North East Hampshire 10:15, 16 January 2015

I beg to move amendment 5, page 1, line 5, at beginning insert “Subject to section 138BB”.

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 the following:

Amendment 1, page 1, line 5, after “may”, insert

“if it has been resolved by a two thirds majority of the members of the council, in a meeting called specifically for that purpose”.

Amendment 12, page 1, line 5, leave out “may” and insert “shall”.

Amendment 3, page 1, line 8, at end add—

“( ) in no case may more than three minutes be devoted to business under this section.”

Amendment 6, page 1, line 17, at beginning insert “Subject to section 138BB”.

Amendment 2, page 1, line 17, after “may”, insert

“if it has been resolved by a two thirds majority of the members of the council, in a meeting called specifically for that purpose”.

Amendment 7, page 2, line 7, at end insert—

“138BB Local referendum on religious observances

(1) If a local authority wishes to use powers under sections 138A or 138B, it must obtain the consent of the electorate through a local referendum.

(2) The referendum is to be held on a date decided by the local authority and may be held on the ordinary day of local elections.

(3) The persons entitled to vote in the referendum are those who, on the day of the referendum would be entitled to vote as electors at an election for councillors of the local authority.

(4) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision as to the conduct of referendums under this section.

(5) If a local authority wishes to use powers under section 138A, the question to be asked is of the form “The council of the (County/City/Borough/District) of proposes to hold religious observances as part of the formal business of council meetings. Do you agree that the council should be allowed to do this?”.

(6) If a local authority wishes to use powers under section 138B, the question to be asked is of the form “The council of the (County/City/Borough/District) of proposes to support and/or be formally represented at religious events. Do you agree that the council should be allowed to do this?”.

(7) If the majority of persons voting in the referendum under either subsection (5) or (6) approve of the proposal, the local authority may use the powers under the respective sections 138A or 138B for four years from the calendar date of the referendum.

(8) In no event may a further referendum be held within four years of the day on which a referendum under this section has been held.”

Photo of James Arbuthnot James Arbuthnot Conservative, North East Hampshire

There are several amendments in my name. The first is on the need to have a local referendum before the issue, which in some cases is controversial, is decided. All I ask is that we should give the local electorate power to make this decision. What could be a greater example of localism than that?

Amendment 1 suggests that there should be a two thirds majority of councillors called in a council meeting specially designed for the purpose. That is in order to ensure that the councillors themselves decide the matter by a strong majority, rather than it being delegated, for example, to the mayor or even to officers of the council to make a decision. Again, that is a good example of localism. Amendment 3 proposes that any such religious observance should be limited to three minutes because, in view of what I have already said at some great length, I do not think we want to have these religious observances extended too long.

I hope that those simple amendments might find favour with my hon. Friend the Minister, but if not I shall withdraw them.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I intend to follow the lead of my right hon. Friend Mr Arbuthnot and be brief. I agree with the shadow Minister, Lyn Brown that many of us will miss my right hon. Friend when he is no longer in the House. He has had a great impact on my time here. I am very grateful to him for that and wish him well for the future.

I should make it clear from the start that my amendment 12 was always designed to be a probing amendment intended to stimulate a debate. I have no intention of pressing it to the vote. It changes the word “may”, with reference to having prayers at council meetings, to “shall”. The only reason I tabled the amendment was to give the opportunity to debate what is so wrong with this as a practice that councils follow.

I am surrounded by Members who are much more devoutly religious than I am. I am not coming at this as some sort of fundamental Christian—far from it. However, one of the things I have been struck by in my time in Parliament is the worth of Prayers at the beginning of the day. Even though it would not be my normal practice to engage in Prayers, I think it sets us up well for our day in Parliament. I will give an illustration; my hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh did something similar. When we start our day with Prayers, what strikes me are the following words—it is amazing how many people quickly forget the Prayer the moment they have said it, which to some extent argues against me, but saying it and hearing it is worthwhile—

“Lord, the God of righteousness and truth, grant to our Queen and her government, to Members of Parliament and all in positions of responsibility, the guidance of your Spirit. May they never lead the nation wrongly through love of power, desire to please, or unworthy ideals but laying aside all private interests and prejudices keep in mind their responsibility to seek to improve the condition of all mankind”.

I do not believe that I am the only person who is always touched by that part of the daily prayer. It seems to embody what we are here to do. Every day it is a worthwhile reminder of that for us all. What is wrong with that? How can anybody find that offensive, no matter what their religious belief is?

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman said that although we say those words, sometimes they are not observed in the subsequent proceedings of the Chamber. I recall the words of Claudius in “Hamlet” after he had been praying, ostensibly, when he said:

“My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:

Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”

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

Order. I might be able to help a little bit. We are not discussing the Prayers of the Chamber. I recognise the benefits and there is an analogy between the two, but the debate is about local government prayers. I have allowed a lot of leeway, but I am sure we will hear the connection made shortly.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I am grateful for your indulgence, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Politicians, whether in the national Parliament or in local government, should always be mindful of these things when they start their proceedings. I am not aware that anybody, whether they have no faith, a Christian faith or some other faith, objects to our starting our proceedings in that way or finds it offensive. For people who do not want to participate in prayers, there is no obligation on them to do so; they can sit them out, as some do, and I fully respect them for that. It should not be compulsory for individuals to have to engage in prayer, but I do not see the objection to people in politics—people serving the public—starting with a reminder of their duty to the people they are elected to serve. That is why I tabled my amendment.

I would go slightly further than my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough. I think it is important that we start with Christian prayers. We are a Christian country and that is our heritage; we should never be ashamed of it. I do not think that people of other faiths are offended by the fact that we are a Christian country either. We still have an established Church of England, and I do not see the problem with that, whether or not we all support it personally. That is our heritage in this country; it is what our values are based on. We should not be ashamed of that; we should be proud of it. It should not cause any offence if everybody started their proceedings in this way.

This is a probing amendment and I do not intend to press it to a Division. I just wanted to stimulate a debate and make people think about why this is not such a bad thing.

Photo of David Nuttall David Nuttall Conservative, Bury North

I have a couple of points to make on this group of amendments.

Amendment 7 deals with a requirement on a local authority to determine this question by holding a local referendum. I am glad that my right hon. Friend Mr Arbuthnot said that he would not press the amendment to a Division, because in view of the financial position of the country and of local authorities, it would make complete nonsense of the Bill. One of the great beauties of this Bill is that it does not impose any financial obligation on local authorities. The amendment would impose a completely unnecessary burden and make a mockery of all the other decisions that local authorities take.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Conservative, North East Somerset

Is my hon. Friend saying that if the amendment were passed, the Bill would require a money resolution and therefore fall at this stage?

Photo of David Nuttall David Nuttall Conservative, Bury North

As I understand it, the Bill already has a money resolution, so I think we can be satisfied on that point. The amendment would certainly increase the amount from what was originally envisaged; it is for others to determine whether that requires a change to the money resolution.

In view of all the matters that local authorities decide for themselves without the necessity of a referendum, requiring a local authority to hold a referendum across the whole district merely to determine whether it holds prayers is bordering on the faintly ridiculous. I therefore oppose the amendment.

My second point is on amendment 12, tabled by my hon. Friend Philip Davies, which would replace the word “may” with the word “shall”. My clear view is that all council meetings should start with prayers and they should be of a Christian nature, but I am against making it mandatory. I think it should be for local authorities to determine for themselves whether to hold prayers.

Let me put to the Chamber a particular scenario. This might be unlikely, but it just might happen that, for whatever reason, all the elected councillors in a particular area have no religious belief whatsoever. They might all be atheists. It would be absurd, would it not, if they were required by the Bill to hold prayers before their meetings? That might not happen, but it should be for the councillors to decide for themselves.

We are all about localism; we are not about imposing obligations on local councils. It should be up to the individual council to decide for itself whether it holds prayers. I hope that they will all decide, without any difficulty, to have a few minutes of prayers and reflection before each council meeting and that those prayers will be of a Christian nature. That is my view, and I oppose my hon. Friend’s suggestion.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Conservative, North East Somerset

That is the same as me—my constituency is Somerset North East and we North Easts have to stick together in the broad scheme of things.

I support the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend Mr Arbuthnot. I always believe in trusting the people. I like having referendums because the assent of the people shows where their spirit and mind are. I happen to think that most people would turn out in a referendum and vote in favour of prayers if the council thought that was a good idea. I think we would find that people are very much in tune with the history of the nation and that they like the fact that, even if it is not their Church —it is not mine—this country has an established religion. I happen to feel that the ceremony, tradition and link with our history that that brings is broadly popular, even with people who are not of that faith, and, therefore, that the referendums would pass. I would be more than happy, however, to put that to the vote, to see whether my speculation is right or whether the view of secular society is right.

Photo of James Arbuthnot James Arbuthnot Conservative, North East Hampshire

My hon. Friend is being extremely kind and, as always, courteous and articulate, but if I were to join him in calling for a vote on the amendment, the entire Bill might collapse. That is not necessarily what I want to achieve, because I know that my hon. Friend Jake Berry is promoting the Bill with the best possible motivation. Perhaps my hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg would like to reconsider his position.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Conservative, North East Somerset

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention. I am well aware of the numbers issue and, for obvious reasons, I would certainly not want to see a Division in which fewer than 35 Members participated. If my right hon. Friend chooses to withdraw his amendment, I shall not shout—or even mutter—against that. I shall certainly support him if he does that. I simply support the underlying principle of his amendment.

I disagree to an extent with my hon. Friend Mr Nuttall on the cost. Of course, there will be some cost, but a referendum could be held on an ordinary council election day—it would not need to be a special election day—on the first Thursday in May, so I think the cost is broadly affordable. One should always be willing to put one’s own view to the test of the view of the British people—the electorate—and have confidence that they will come to the correct decision.

There is an extraordinary trend of radicalism in being on the side of the secularists, and I am not entirely sure that I support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend

Philip Davies, which is a very rare event, because he is one of the wisest Members of this House and almost invariably right. However, I feel that “shall” does not go far enough and goes too far at the same time. I would be in favour of a Bill saying that every sitting of every council should start with an extraordinary form mass—the Tridentine mass—as that would be absolutely splendid. Ideally, it would be a high mass with so much incense that people started sneezing. It would be a fine piece of legislation, but it is not what the Bill is trying to do; it is simply to enable people to pray if they want to. The word “shall” would take this Bill too far, but if one were introduced in the next set of private Members’ Bills to re-establish Roman Catholic worship at the beginning of all such sessions in our public life, I would certainly not oppose it.

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

On this group of amendments, I will reiterate what I said earlier. I am confident that councils will make decisions on how they choose to vote or decide to include prayer in a way that suits their local circumstances. A council may well choose to adopt prayers on a majority, a two-thirds vote or an alternative proportion, or under a different procedure. Likewise, it may well decide that prayer should last no longer than three minutes, or it may decide alternative parameters. Such a matter is up to the council, so I say gently to Mr Arbuthnot that it should be a local choice, built on an understanding of individual local communities and circumstances. I hope that he will therefore understand why I cannot support his amendments.

I have already made the point that the measures in the Bill should not be prescriptive, and I gladly make it again. This is permissive, enabling legislation, and choices and judgments should be made locally. That is particularly important with regard to amendments 5 to 7, which would require public bodies to undertake a referendum to decide whether to include religious observances at meetings. Although I agree with the thrust of the speech of Mr Nuttall, at a time when finance is scarce, I do not want to put new burdens on local authorities, and we certainly should not require them to incur additional financial cost. Referendums are expensive, and especially in these straitened financial times, councils would not want to commit to those costs.

Photo of David Nuttall David Nuttall Conservative, Bury North

I want to clarify my remarks, because the shadow Minister may have got the wrong end of the stick. I made it clear that it is not appropriate for local authorities to have to spend money on holding a referendum.

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

I was agreeing with the hon. Gentleman. I am sorry: I know it is not normal, but Fridays are unusual, and we just have to ride with it.

Frankly, if we insisted on a referendum, unlike Jacob Rees-Mogg I do not think that everybody would necessarily turn out to vote. If we enabled local councils seeking the power to hold prayers at meetings to hold referendums, I fear that the turnout would not justify the cost. To introduce referendums on the subject would provide a clear disincentive for councils to consider the inclusion of prayers at all. I therefore cannot support the amendments tabled by the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire. We need to provide local councils with the freedom to choose to hold prayers or reflections, without fettering that discretion or imposing new financial and administrative burdens on public bodies.

On the amendment tabled by Philip Davies, I am sure that it will not come as a surprise to him that, although he read out my favourite part of morning prayers, I cannot support any suggestion of making prayer compulsory. I would not support the amendment if he pressed it to a vote.

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

The Government have worked hard to get rid of burdens on local authorities and empower the public to hold local authorities to account, and we therefore believe that the amendments are unnecessary. However well intentioned, I am concerned that they could be a burden on local authorities and hence the taxpayer, and they could obstruct rather than enable the intention of the Bill, which is to allow local authorities to hold town hall prayers as part of official business if they wish. There is no need for an amendment to require a two-thirds majority to enable the local authority to hold town hall prayers. Such a measure would mean that a minority might vote against prayers but still stop the council from holding them as part of official business, and a minority stopping a majority from taking part in an item of business that nobody is compelled to take part in is what the Bill intends to put to an end.

In addition to provisions on town hall prayers, the Bill will ensure that local authorities are able to support, facilitate, and be represented at events with a religious element. It is, sadly, not too much of a stretch to imagine that individuals or organisations with an axe to grind might also choose to attack the proper role that local authorities play, for example by organising a Remembrance Sunday event by closing a road. That should never happen, and the Bill will help to ensure that any such challenge will, quite rightly, be a non-starter.

An amendment to make the provision subject to a vote has the same possibility of a perverse outcome, with minority opinion resulting in the council being unable to exercise functions that it may already be exercising, as well as preventing it from taking part in activities that the majority wish to participate in. The Bill intentionally does not define what “prayer” or “observance” is, and the amendment that seeks to limit the time that the council may spend on an item of business—in this case, town hall prayers or an observance connected with religious or philosophical belief—to three minutes, is indeed odd. I presume it is to ensure that town hall prayers do not take up too much valuable time, but I question whether it is necessary. Protracted sermons may be a stock feature of some comedy novels featuring the clergy, but I question whether such an issue would arise in the council chamber, especially as that chamber is open to the scrutiny of the public who can film, tweet, blog or otherwise report the goings on of the local authority. We should trust local authorities and councillors to serve the interests of the public to whom they are accountable, without the need for a steer on how long they should take over this or that item of business.

Continuing the theme of scrutiny, trust and accountability, I am concerned about the amendment that would make any local authority decision in the Bill first subject to a local referendum. That seems unnecessary gold plating, and an unnecessary expense for the taxpayer. There are also technical issues to be considered, such as how the referendums would work with those local authorities exercising the general power of competence. The Bill is to enable smaller parish and town councils, and other local authorities such as single-purpose authorities, to hold town hall prayers as part of their business if they wish, but those local authorities are not mentioned in the amendments.

Amendment 12 is perhaps my greatest concern. The freedom not to hold town hall prayers is the choice of the local authority, and just as important as the freedom to hold them. Compelling a local authority to hold town hall prayers, or an observance connected with a religious or philosophical belief, is against the spirit of the Bill, and it would no longer be the gentle and inclusive measure that celebrates all faiths that is intended. I hope that the message is clear that we should trust our local councillors and the public with the measures in the Bill, and that the amendments will not be pressed.

Photo of Jake Berry Jake Berry Conservative, Rossendale and Darwen

I have several concerns about the group of amendments tabled by my right hon. Friend Mr Arbuthnot, but they have been helpful in enabling us to discuss and further explore the extent of the Bill. I have a particular concern about the proposal to limit prayers to three minutes. We have talked about the parliamentary prayers with which we start every day here in Parliament. I glanced over my shoulder this morning just as we finished our prayers to see that they lasted three minutes and 40 seconds, so parliamentary prayers would offend the proposed three-minute limit. I do not think that in religious observance of any kind there is room for a stopwatch.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Conservative, North East Somerset 10:45, 16 January 2015

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way on the issue of a stopwatch. I would like to bring to his attention the fact that in the church in Nempnett Thrubwell in my constituency there is a 20-minute egg timer for the sermon.

Photo of Jake Berry Jake Berry Conservative, Rossendale and Darwen

I can think of several church services I have been to recently where I might have wanted to take the egg timer with me. I will come on to the comments made by my hon. Friend in a moment. I look forward in particular to supporting his Bill, following the next private Members’ Bill ballot, to reintroduce a full mass before every sitting of the House.

I came to this place in 2010. I, and colleagues, have had the privilege often of being in this Chamber when huge events of national importance were about to take place and we were about to consider and debate them. I think particularly of the riots, where Parliament was recalled, and the parliamentary votes on whether to take military action in Libya and in Syria. On each occasion when I attended prayers, they extended beyond three minutes. The Speaker’s Chaplain the Rev. Rose, who is a wonderful and inspirational preacher, extended the prayers to discuss—they are held in private, but if I may just lift the veil briefly—the matters being considered later that day. I am sure colleagues of faith and of no faith enjoyed the extended opportunity to consider the very difficult decisions we faced, and enjoyed the style and eloquence with which the Speaker’s Chaplain conducted proceedings. If the three-minute rule were introduced in local authorities, where they have similar difficult decisions to make on issues of local importance—opening schools, closing schools or cancelling bus services—they would be hampered by the time limit.

I am also concerned about why it should be necessary for a council to have a two-thirds majority to have prayers. If we were to have a two-thirds majority for prayers, why should that not be the case for everything else? I am sure local people would feel that lots of important issues of day-to-day relevance should be decided by a two-thirds majority—moving from weekly to fortnightly bin collections, for example. Such issues have more relevance and impact on people’s lives than council prayers. The decision on whether a council is able to pray should be made by a simple majority. I will be resisting the amendments and hope that they will not be pressed to a Division.

The proposal to hold a referendum every four years is unnecessary and overly bureaucratic. It should be for councils to decide locally, in their town hall, what goes on. Everyone who opposes the decisions they make already has a vote in a referendum every four years: they can sack all of their councillors. I have known some very lazy councillors in my time—I will not name them—and I would encourage people to sack them at local elections.

If people oppose what is done, either in Parliament or in the council chamber, they now have many ways to communicate it. They can contact their representatives on Facebook and Twitter. They have even been known occasionally to send Members of Parliament e-mails—several hundred a day. They do not need a referendum if they are unhappy with decisions; they can vote out councillors every four years and, in between, have many, many ways of making contact and corresponding with them. I am grateful for the amendments that have been tabled. They have improved the debate today, but I do not think they are necessary and I hope they will be resisted.

The amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Philip Davies is also valuable in enabling us to discuss the Bill’s provisions and how they would affect local people. I am an advocate of and a believer in localism. I do not think it is for Whitehall to dictate to councils how they should conduct their business; the town hall should be free to do so. We should not seek to mandate from this place or even move towards mandating from this place how local authorities conduct their business, especially in such a sensitive area as religious belief. The Bill is, as has been stated repeatedly, about freedom and about empowering and entrusting that freedom to our local authority councillors, the vast majority of whom, if not all, are excellent individuals who have sharp and keen minds capable of making the decision locally about how to conduct their business.

Finally, I promised to return to the contribution of my hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg. The idea of his private Member’s Bill for starting all proceedings in local authorities with a mass and incense might be an idea with legs, so I will watch with interest where he comes in the private Members’ ballot next year. I may be prepared to become a subscriber to his Bill, although I am not sure that I would support the abolition of the Church of England and the restoration of the Roman Catholic Church. There are, of course,

Anglo-Catholics who are almost more Catholic than the Catholics in some of their tastes and traditions for their own Church, so this could be explored further on a future date.

With all those assurances, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire will be willing to withdraw his amendment and that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley will not press his.

Photo of James Arbuthnot James Arbuthnot Conservative, North East Hampshire

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Third Reading

Photo of Jake Berry Jake Berry Conservative, Rossendale and Darwen 10:51, 16 January 2015

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I shall not detain the House for long. We have had a good debate today, and I have enjoyed it immensely. I am grateful for the contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and for Shipley, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire, my hon. Friends the Members for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) and for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), the Minister and the shadow Minister.

Let me briefly put on the record my thanks to the Minister for her support of this Bill and my profound thanks to all the officials from her Department who have been excellent. Whenever I had a question to ask, they were happy to help and advise. They have been instrumental in ensuring the smooth passage of the Bill through the House. I thank the shadow Minister and Opposition Members for their support. It is clear that this Bill can unite parties and people across the House in support of providing freedom for people to pray.

It has been a great privilege for me to have the opportunity to bring forward a private Member’s Bill in an area that is of particular interest to me—religious freedom and faith. It is a great privilege to have this Bill now being read for the Third time. I have been contacted by churches and people of faith in my constituency, including imams and representatives from our local mosque. The Bill has not only been discussed here, but has been held in the prayers and religious observances of many people across Rossendale and Darwen. I am sure from the number of people who have written to me to wish us luck that many across our nation have been inspired by the Bill.

I said at the time of the money resolution that I believed—and I still believe—that there is more power in prayer than in the stroke of any Minister’s pen, than in the power of the Chair—and you were in the Chair at the time, Madam Deputy Speaker—or than in any Division of this House. I am extremely grateful to people all over the country, and more particularly in my constituency, who have held this Bill and its passage through Parliament in their prayers. I hope that they will continue to hold it in their prayers as it proceeds through the other place.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) 10:54, 16 January 2015

It is a privilege to rise again in support of this Bill. Let me express my thanks once again to Jake Berry for taking it through the House with such confidence, style and aplomb.

Last week’s discussion in Committee indicated a breadth of support from all parts of the House, and I am pleased that the point was made—time and again—that this Bill fundamentally protects freedom of choice. I warmly congratulate the hon. Gentleman on seeking to preserve the balance in the Bill, and I applaud the gentleness of the language. The word “may” as proposed in clause 1 is crucial. It is not for us to determine whether prayers should be included; it is our role simply to enable those decisions to be taken at a local level and based on individual local circumstances.

As I have said, I come from a multi-faith community—one that celebrates diversity of religion and culture. Our gurdwaras, our mosques, our temples and our churches of all types and denominations are full on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Having served as a local councillor, I know it was our tradition to have chaplains of all faiths exercising their role in the council chamber. Prayer was used as a means of bringing people together and highlighting the common ground that is found in many, if not all, faiths.

The Bill does not make prayers compulsory. It is simply about giving councils and public bodies the right to include prayers if they so wish. It is right that these decisions are taken locally, that they take into account the range of traditions, cultures and views of communities and that councils are sensitive in exercising their discretion. Should they decide to incorporate prayers or reflections of whatever tradition, councils will be able to take decisions about the detail of arrangements to ensure that they are inclusive and that no one is left feeling excluded or alienated. We must trust that our councils are best placed to make decisions that accurately reflect the needs and wishes of their own communities.

I welcome the Bill, which delivers the same degree of choice for a wide array of public bodies listed under clause 2. I think it is a clever way of emphasising that all public bodies, of whatever stripe, have a role to play in supporting communities and promoting community cohesion, as well as encouraging faith and non-faith groups to engage with those public bodies and contribute to that cohesion. I thought that was really well done.

I support the hon. Gentleman, too, in his efforts to ensure that all types of local authorities are entitled to make a decision of their own and to contribute in the same way as larger bodies. I am grateful for the clarification he brought to underline the opportunity for local authorities to contribute to religious events. He illustrated clearly in Committee, and again today, that the Bill will protect traditions that we take for granted at the moment.

At its heart, the Bill is about maintaining the right balance, providing choice without prescribing measures; enabling prayers to be included, while also making it clear that this is a localised decision to be based on local circumstances. I believe the hon. Gentleman has got the balance absolutely right, and I am happy to support the progress of his Bill.

Photo of David Nuttall David Nuttall Conservative, Bury North 10:58, 16 January 2015

I rise to support the Third Reading of this Bill. As the House will be aware, the Bill received what I described in Committee as the equivalent of a bye in the first round of the FA cup in that there was no debate on Second Reading. There was a brief discussion about the Bill when the money resolution was passed.

Apart from that and the Committee debate, today has been the first—and, indeed, the only—occasion on which the Bill has been discussed on the Floor of the House. Let me thank my parliamentary next-door neighbour, my hon. Friend Jake Berry, for introducing the Bill.

From time to time, we are faced with situations brought about as a result of an unexpected turn of events in the courts. Judges sometimes reach decisions that throw into question the whole basis on which we have previously conducted our affairs in this country. In 2010, earlier in the present Parliament, there was a court case involving Bideford town council, a member of which, with the support of the National Secular Society, objected to the holding of prayers at the beginning of council meetings. Prayers were included on the agenda as the first item, before apologies for absence. Although the council member tabled motions to end the practice, they were rejected, so—again, with the help of the National Secular Society—he took the council to court, where it was argued that the council had no power to hold prayers as part of its formal business. Everyone in the land had always assumed that councils did have that power.

It is testimony to the ability of my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen that he has managed to pilot the Bill to its current stage, with the result that it is now crystal clear that councils have the power to hold prayers as part of their proceedings. It also clear that councils can take part in and facilitate religious events. That is particularly relevant to remembrance, and specifically, in my own local authority in Bury, to the marking of Gallipoli day.

Photo of James Arbuthnot James Arbuthnot Conservative, North East Hampshire

My hon. Friend is making a very good point about councils needing to be represented at remembrance events, but, speaking as one who does not have a belief in God, I wonder whether those events need involve God. I think it is very important for us to commemorate, honour and respect veterans and those who have died fighting for their country, and I have no objection to this part of the Bill, because I think that councils need to be represented at such events, but I find it regrettable that those events must necessarily involve something in which many people do not believe.

Photo of David Nuttall David Nuttall Conservative, Bury North

No one is suggesting that those who have no faith should not be equally able to commemorate events of the past in their own way, but we have a long-standing tradition in this country of commemorating them by attending a religious service. Of course, there is no reason why those who have no faith whatsoever cannot organise a separate event with no religious content. However, I think that most authorities hold religious services. Bury council has a long tradition of commemorating Gallipoli day, marking it with a special Sunday on which it holds a civic service every year. The centenary of Gallipoli will be commemorated this year, not just in Bury but across the country.

For all those reasons, I am pleased to be able to support the Bill. I am sure that it will be given a Third Reading, and I wish it a speedy passage in the other place.

Photo of Penny Mordaunt Penny Mordaunt The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 11:04, 16 January 2015

I do not wish to delay the House, but I think it is worth our reminding ourselves why the Bill is necessary at all. It is necessary because in 2012 the High Court ruled, on the basis on a narrow interpretation of the Local Government Act 1972, that councils had no statutory power to hold prayers as part of official business. The Bill will give councils that statutory power, and gives them freedom to pray.

As has already been made clear, the Bill does not compel anyone to pray; nor does it define what constitutes prayer, or what constitutes religion. It does not contain an exclusive list of religions or a definition of what constitutes prayer, because it gives bodies and individuals freedom to determine those matters for themselves. It takes a workable approach, giving local authorities freedom to include in their business time for prayers or other religious observance, or observance connected with a religious or philosophical belief. It also enables them to support, facilitate and be represented at events with a religious element.

Throughout the Bill’s passage so far, I have had in mind an event in my constituency: our Remembrance day service in Portsmouth, which, as would be expected in Portsmouth, is a pretty spectacular event. Representatives of all the main faiths in the city give readings and say prayers, which are interspersed with secular poems and hymns. It is an amazing event, which gathers huge crowds. I think that it is much stronger for the participation of all the city’s faith groups, and I say that as one who did not swear on the Holy Book when I affirmed my allegiance to Her Majesty and took my seat, but made a secular affirmation. I recognise the important role that religion plays in civic life, and I think that my local branch of the Royal Navy chaplaincy would have been very concerned to hear the comments of my right hon. Friend Mr Arbuthnot.

Faith can be a unifying force for good. Faith organisations are intertwined with our communities. Councils, and councillors, should be free to allow faith to play a part in their business should they wish it to do so. The Government support the Bill because it gives authorities freedom to pray if they wish. The choice will be a local one. It will be for councils, and for the public who elect their councillors, to decide whether meetings will begin with a prayer, a reflection, or neither. It will be for councils to determine the content of prayers, which may, for instance, reflect the faith composition of their local areas. We consider that the Bill performs a valuable function. It is right for an authority that makes the decision to say prayers as part of its formal business to be able to do so. We should trust local people to decide.

I commend this straightforward, sensible and proportionate Bill to the House, and I thank and congratulate my hon. Friend Jake Berry.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.