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Local Government (Religious etc. Observances) Bill — Second Reading

– in the House of Lords at 3:26 pm on 27th February 2015.

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Moved by Lord Cormack

That the Bill be read a second time.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative 3:29 pm, 27th February 2015

My Lords, I am delighted to have the opportunity of presenting this Bill to your Lordships’ House. It was piloted through another place with great skill by my honourable friend Jake Berry, the Member for Rossendale and Darwen, with support from all sides of the House of Commons. We are a bit depleted at this stage on a Friday afternoon, but I am particularly glad to see the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle here because we began our long Friday, as we begin every day, with Prayers, which were taken today by him and, if I may say so, I think that he always takes our prayers with a particular grace and dignity. He is helped a great deal by the script, of course, because those immortal words that have been said in this Chamber for nigh on 400 years are among the noblest and most melodious in the English language.

This is a simple measure, very different from the one that occupied your Lordships’ House for so many hours earlier today. It is clear, simple and modest, and it imposes no obligations upon anyone. It merely removes doubt and provides opportunity.

The background to the Bill is that in 2012 a town councillor from Bideford, a Mr Clive Bone, challenged the legality of Bideford Town Council beginning its proceedings with prayers. When he ceased to be a councillor—sadly, I understand that Mr Bone died at Christmas time—he felt so strongly about the matter that, with the aid of the National Secular Society, he challenged the council in the courts. Mr Bone alleged that Section 111 of the Local Government Act did not give authority for holding prayers. He also alleged that the very act of holding prayers discriminated against him and infringed his human rights. The case went to the High Court and Mr Justice Ouseley ruled against Mr Bone on the latter points. He said that it was not an infringement of his human rights and he had not been unlawfully discriminated against. However—here is the rider, and an important one—Mr Justice Ouseley said that Section 3 of the Local Government Act 1972 did not permit the holding of prayers before a council meeting.

Obviously, there was widespread consternation at this. At the instigation of the Secretary of State, Mr Eric Pickles, in another place, the Government brought into force the general powers of competence under Section 1 of the Localism Act 2011, of which we will all have various memories. It was more than tokenism, because it enabled the Secretary of State to ensure that all principal local authorities in England had the opportunity to begin their proceedings with prayer.

The situation was still unsatisfactory, however: smaller parish councils were not able to confidently begin with prayer, nor were purpose authorities such as fire and rescue services or integrated transport authorities. So the Bill is to put beyond doubt the freedom of all those authorities, parish councils and so on to decide, if they so wish, that they can begin their proceedings with prayer, or indeed with a moment of reflection or meditation. I might say how glad I am that a devout Muslim, my dear and noble friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, is going to respond to this debate from the government Front Bench; the Bill does not say that the prayers have to be prayers according to the Christian faith. It can be any faith or a period of meditation.

The Bill does another thing. The ruling given by Mr Justice Ouseley threw into doubt the legitimacy of local authorities participating in certain public acts of worship and also made it doubtful whether it was legal for them to do things to facilitate such acts of worship. Of course, one thinks, in particular, of Remembrance Day, when councils very often have to have road closure orders so that the solemnities of that great annual festival of remembrance can be conducted without danger to those who are participating in them.

This is a good, sensible, modest measure. As I said earlier, we begin with Prayers every day, as they do in another place. In the Scottish Parliament, they do not. They begin with Time for Reflection, a sort of thought for the day, which can often be a secular one, but that is because that is what they want to do. I emphasise to your Lordships that this is permissive legislation. There are no obligations. If the town council of Puddleton-in-the-Marsh decides it does not want to begin its meetings with prayers, it does not have to do so. If, on the other hand, it decides that it wants the local vicar, Methodist minister, rabbi or imam to lead it in prayer, that can happen.

Religion plays a very important part in the life of our nation. It is part of the very fabric of our society. I made passing reference earlier to the sonorous words and phrases, particularly of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, that run through our lives and our history like a golden thread.

In another place, Mr Robert Flello, the Labour Member of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent South made a very telling remark. He said:

“This measure is so gentle that someone would have to work hard to find any way of taking any sort of umbrage or insult from it”.—[Hansard, Commons, 16/1/15; col. 1136.]

Mr Flello summed up the aims and objectives of the Bill extremely simply, rather movingly and very truly in those words.

I commend this Bill to your Lordships. I hope it will have a swift passage on to the statute book, supported by the Government, the Official Opposition and members in all parts of your Lordships’ House. I beg to move.

Photo of The Earl of Clancarty The Earl of Clancarty Crossbench 3:38 pm, 27th February 2015

My Lords, I have concerns about this Bill. I have never been a councillor, but there are matters of principle as well as practicalities I want to draw attention to, which we ignore at our peril.

The main issue is one of representation. A council is not elected for its religious beliefs. Individual council members are elected because of what they pledge to do for their local area, as well as for their political affiliations. Councillors, therefore, do not represent any particular religion, and that is an important point.

By the same token neither is an electorate a religious community. Eric Pickles, in defending prayers as a formal part of council meetings, was reported two years ago in the newspapers as saying:

“While welcoming and respecting fellow British citizens who belong to other faiths, we are a Christian country”.

But the reality is that in modern Britain this is only partly true. We are today a multi-cultural, multi-faith country, which contains a diversity of beliefs and non-beliefs. A Huffington Post UK poll conducted in October last year found that more than 60% of those polled in Britain were—and I quote from the Huffington Post UK—“not religious at all”.

Any electorate, then, is likely to be diverse in its religious beliefs and non-beliefs. However, if a council votes to hold prayers of a particular religion as part of its formal business, or continues to do so for tradition’s sake, it is not just a minority of councillors who are then excluded or imposed upon but a significant number of the electorate as well. The councillors, it must be remembered, are the electorate’s servants.

In making these comments, I am not against prayer or religion. Indeed, in my opinion, it is the bishops, as much as anyone, who have in recent times been the conscience of the nation. The fact is that politics and religion overlap as philosophies, and I recognise that many who have strong religious beliefs go into politics at every level. I suspect—I do not have any numbers to prove this—that a disproportionate number of people with strong religious beliefs become politicians, relative to the population as a whole. That is simply a fact of life, but I reiterate: it is not for their religious beliefs that councillors are elected, and therefore religion should not constitute part of the formal business of council meetings.

As the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, the Bill does not specify which God should be prayed to or religion followed. I think that if the Bill passes, we will have a recipe for divisiveness and storing up potential problems in the long term. Is not the wisest course for councils to be scrupulously impartial with respect to the beliefs and non-beliefs held by the residents of a local area, while at the same time having a presence at, for example, the celebration of cultural and religious festivals where appropriate to do so? Institutionalising a particular religion within the formal business of a council meeting or identifying the council with a belief, or even a range of beliefs, must in the modern age be insensitive and crosses what many people would think is today’s acceptable line. In modern parliaments and assemblies, for instance at the GLA’s City Hall, we quite rightly now have multifaith chapels. Where individual councillors are keen to say prayers, is it too much to ask that a space—even a temporary space— be put aside for private prayer? That is a possible way forward.

I have one question of clarification. As far as I can see, nowhere in Section 1 of the Localism Act 2011 is there any reference to prayers being said at council meetings, but the notes accompanying the Bill say that it builds on that Act, which is supposed to allow local authorities to have prayers as part of formal business. At the same time, the Bill does not amend that Act but the Local Government Act 1972. The Bill consequently contains the full range of councils and assemblies, so I am not sure that it can be claimed to be as modest as some argue. It might be added that the Localism Act 2011, as far as I know, was not used in any defence in the National Secular Society and Mr Clive Bone v Bideford Town Council, which took place in 2012. The prosecution was on the basis of the Local Government Act. Therefore, I should like to know what precise wording in the Localism Act is deemed to allow prayers, and whether that would really stand up in a court of law.

I hope that the Government and the Opposition take careful note of these arguments before coming to any decision about support or otherwise for the Bill.

Photo of Lord Kennedy of Southwark Lord Kennedy of Southwark Labour 3:43 pm, 27th February 2015

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for bringing the Bill to your Lordships’ House today. I declare an interest as an elected member of Lewisham Council in London.

The Bill as outlined will give local authorities the freedom to include prayers, other religious observances or observances connected with religious or philosophical belief as part of the business of that authority. The Bill also provides that local authorities in England may support, facilitate and make arrangements to be represented at religious events or an event with a religious element.

I understand that, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, told your Lordships’ House, the Bill has its origins in the High Court ruling when a town councillor was successful in having the practice of prayers being part of the official business of the town council of which he was a member ruled as being not lawful. That was on the narrow issue of whether Section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972 gave councils the power to continue with prayers. The High Court ruled that it did not.

All the Bill does is to make it clear beyond doubt that smaller local authorities, parish councils and fire and transport and other authorities themselves have the power, the freedom and the ability to include prayers or other observances as part of their official business, if they choose to do so. They are not compelled to do anything. It is for locally elected members of local councils to make whatever decision they wish.

I refer noble Lords to line 5 of the Bill, which says:

“The business at a meeting of a local authority in England may include”— that is “may”, not “must”. Line 8 on the first page continues with,

“observance connected with a religious or philosophical belief”.

Therefore the observance does not have to be religious at all. The Bill is enabling; as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, it is permissive; it is not prescriptive or compelling. Religious or philosophical observances are of a local and individual choice, which is how it should be.

As I declared earlier, I am an active member of Lewisham Council, and we do not have prayers at our council meeting. However, at a recent meeting of the council, the local rabbi was invited along to lead a short service at the start of the council meeting because it was Holocaust Memorial Day. It was very moving indeed, and very well received by everyone present. We also take part in acts of remembrance at the two war memorials in the borough, which contain a religious element and which are led by local vicars. Southwark is the area where I grew up, and it has an annual civic service. The council meeting where civic awards are presented is often held at St George’s Cathedral, which is of course very near your Lordships’ House. People of all faiths and no faith happily come along to that occasion to celebrate achievements by citizens of the borough.

I do not agree with the comments made by the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, as the safeguards in the Bill cover the points and concerns he has raised. This is a sensible and modest measure that should concern no one. I do not intend to detain the House much longer; in conclusion I will say that this is a good Bill. It is about having the freedom to choose to do something or not as an authority, and to choose to take part or not as a local councillor. It is a sensible and proportionate Bill and most welcome, and I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for bringing it forward. I too wish the Bill well and hope that there will be no amendments, and that it will have a speedy passage through your Lordships’ House and reach the statute book before this Parliament comes to an end at the end of next month.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) 3:47 pm, 27th February 2015

My Lords, first, I join the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, in extending my thanks from the government Benches to my noble friend Lord Cormack for taking up this Bill. We all regard him as both an established and well respected parliamentarian, but I also know that he is a great and passionate advocate for the role of faith in community and in society and its role as a force for good in society as a whole. Therefore I can think of no one more appropriate than my noble friend in being the key Member to support the Bill. In doing so I also pay tribute to my honourable friend Jake Berry for taking the Bill through so successfully in the other place, with, again, the full support of Her Majesty’s Opposition. Again, I put on record my support for both the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and the support from Her Majesty’s Opposition this afternoon.

Perhaps before I go further into the Bill, it is entirely appropriate to refer to some of the questions raised by the noble Earl. I have always regarded faith as a force for good; I was educated in a Church of England school. On a lighter note, I remembered that my best man at my wedding is an atheist. I will quote from his best man’s speech, when he said: “Tariq is someone I have always known as a man of faith. Faith he regards as a force for good. There may have been occasions when he sought to convert me to his own faith of Islam, and I sought to convert him to my faith of rugby and beer. Neither of us succeeded. Nevertheless, what we grew up with in the society and the country we are all part of is mutual and deep respect for each other’s views”. I think that also applies to the role of faith in society and to the role it has played historically and traditionally and which I hope it will continue to play in the present and in years to come.

We are, as the noble Earl himself acknowledged, a multifaith nation. Faith and belief are woven through the fabric of our country. It is so deeply rooted in the history of the nation that it has shaped our very landscape, from standing stones to steeples. We can boast one of the biggest mosques in western Europe and one of the biggest Hindu temples outside India. As we talk about a multifaith society, it is perhaps apt that I am accompanied on the government Front Bench by my noble friend Lord Popat, who I know is a practising Hindu, a strong member of the Government and an advocate for faith. However, I also acknowledge that many in this House and beyond, such as my best man, practise no faith, as the noble Earl pointed out. We are a nation that not only respects all faiths but equally respects those who have no faith.

Unfortunately, we have seen in certain parts of the world instances of where intolerance of different faiths, or indeed of different interpretations of faith, can lead. We have seen that intolerance in certain parts of the world lead to persecution of minorities. However, that has never been our way. We do not agree with those who seek to impose their beliefs, or lack of belief, on others. It is because of the intolerance of others that Bills such as this sometimes become necessary.

Unfortunately, the role of faith is not shared by everybody, but in a democracy we accept that. The National Secular Society was instrumental in bringing the legal action against Bideford Town Council, to which my noble friend referred. The town council had a tradition of holding town hall prayers as part of official business—a tradition that stretched back to the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First. In February 2012, the High Court ruled on a narrow point of law that the saying of prayers as part of a formal meeting was not lawful under the powers contained in Section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972. A tradition that had existed for centuries that harmed nobody and epitomised how faith, community and public duty are closely woven together in our country was ruled unlawful.

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government acted swiftly in response. He brought into force the general power of competence for local authorities in England, giving principal local authorities in England, and some parish councils, the freedom, among other things, to continue to have prayers as part of the formal meetings of the authority. However, smaller parish councils do not have this power and neither do a range of single-purpose authorities such as fire and rescue authorities. This Bill will restore to those authorities the freedom to choose to hold prayers as part of official business, should they wish. That latter point is most important, because this Bill is about freedom.

Before I explain what the Bill does, I should explain what it does not do. As my noble friend said, this Bill has been described in another place 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”.—[ Official Report , Commons, 16/1/15; col. 1136.]

It is a Bill about freedom: freedom to pray and freedom not to pray. It is about choice: the freedom for a local authority, collectively, to take a decision to hold prayers as part of official business, or indeed not to do so, and the freedom for individual councillors to attend the meeting during that business, or not. The Bill does not compel, force or coerce a local authority to hold town hall prayers as part of its official business, nor does it compel anyone to pray.

As we have heard, we start our proceedings in your Lordships’ House with Prayers. Noble Lords have a choice whether or not they attend Prayers. As a Muslim by faith, if I am in the House I choose to attend those Prayers as it provides a point of reflection at the start of the day’s Business, not least if you are due to appear at the Dispatch Box regularly, and that process also brings us together. There are times when one reflects on one’s own prayers as well—prayers for one’s family, friends and, indeed, the country.

This Bill takes a pragmatic, workable approach, giving local authorities the freedom to include in their business time for prayers or other religious observance connected with a religious or philosophical belief. The Bill’s provisions would give smaller parish councils and other authorities without the general power of competence the freedom to hold prayers at the start of council meetings, should they wish. The Bill also ensures that local authorities are able to support, facilitate and be represented at events with a religious element, for instance closing a road to ensure that a Remembrance Sunday event can take place safely.

It is important to protect the freedom of religious belief in our country. The Government support the Bill because it allows authorities the freedom to pray if they wish to do so. It will make the choice a local one again. It is for local authorities, and the public who elect their councillors, to decide whether meetings might begin with a prayer. It will of course continue to be for councils to determine the content of prayers, including for instance by reflecting the faith composition of their local area, but the decision on whether to hold prayers will be a local one. We heard about the experience as a local councillor of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and that this can sometimes involve Christian traditions or others, as appropriate. That is right in our multifaith nation, which has brought many benefits, and is strengthened further by the role that faith plays.

In conclusion, I and the Government believe this to be an important Bill. It is about freedom: freedom of local choice, freedom of religion, and freedom from a legal ruling that removed local democratic choice. It is important to regard the Bill in that light. The Government support this Bill because we consider its provisions to perform a valuable function. It is right that if a local authority takes a decision to say prayers as part of formal business then it should be able to do so. The Government wish this important Bill well and, as other noble Lords have said, we hope it will have a speedy progress into law.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative 3:56 pm, 27th February 2015

My Lords, I am immensely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for his endorsement of the Bill and for what he said in a short but telling speech. I am grateful, too, to my noble friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon for what he has just said. It is good to have the Government’s support.

How splendidly symbolic it is that in this not exactly overcrowded Chamber we have a Minister who is a Muslim and a government Whip and Minister who is a Hindu. I hope that he will forgive me if I quote him. I remember that soon after he was appointed here we had a brief exchange on whether we should have prayers in your Lordships’ House. I think it occurred on the day he was due to make his maiden speech. He was sitting here, next to me, and said how much he approved of our beginning every day with prayers. I asked, “May I quote you?”. He could not speak because he had not delivered his maiden speech. With his encouragement and permission, I was therefore able to quote the words of a Hindu to the House, which were well received, just as my noble friend has been increasingly well received over the years since. It is good to have this debate in the presence of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle.

I also thank—and I mean this—the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, because the essence of our debating is that we have different points of view. He was entirely reasonable in the way in which he put his point of view, although I disagree fundamentally with him. All I would say to him is this: when people are elected to an authority—particularly in local authorities—the issue of whether they are a member of the local parish church, synagogue or mosque is generally fairly well known. If they choose—I deliberately emphasise “choose”—to vote for prayers in the local authority to which they have been elected, that is entirely within their rights. If a majority chooses and the individual does not want to go, he or she does not have to go. I say to the noble Earl, please remember that because this is a permissive measure. No obligations are placed on anyone, as I said at the beginning. What it does is place beyond doubt and on a totally legal footing the freedom of any authority—local authority or single purpose authority—to decide what its practice should be. The noble Earl and I share many interests, particularly in the arts. I just say to him, please regard that neither I nor anyone else seeks to impose upon him or anyone else an obligation to do anything or to do nothing.

When we have our prayers in this place, the words of our great prayer, which I quoted the other night when I was giving a lecture at St Michael’s Cornhill in the City, include that most memorable phrase, when we ask that we eschew,

“private interests, prejudices, and partial affections”.

It is beholden on us all to do that: to respect the views of others. If the views of others amount to a majority in favour of prayers, philosophical observance or meditation at the beginning of a meeting, then they must be free to do so without feeling that they will face the penalties of the law.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.