Freedom of Religion and Belief — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:44 pm on 16th July 2015.

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Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench 6:44 pm, 16th July 2015

My Lords, characteristically, the Minister has given the House a considered, detailed, thoughtful and extremely helpful reply to this extremely well-informed debate—characteristic itself of the place that the House of Lords is. That point was made earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice. We have heard from people of all faiths and denominations and none, and all the speeches shed light on the nature of Article 18. The Minister just said that it is part of the answer to extremism and I entirely agree. I particularly welcome what she said about the importance of religious literacy and what she is doing to encourage people to understand more the forces that are driving on these malign forces in so many parts of the world today.

The noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, with whom I work on the All-Party Group on International Religious Freedom or Belief, where she does such a wonderful job, talked about my “uncanny knack” of coming up in the ballot—a point also referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Bach. Perhaps I should try my hand at the National Lottery. More seriously, it makes the point that we should have an annual debate on human rights and I hope that the Minister will think about providing for that in government time so that it will not be left to the vagaries of the ballot, helpful though it is that we have been able to have this debate today.

Many noble Lords have given me undeserved generosity in the remarks they have made, none more so than the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. As we walk in here each day, most of us probably pass the western wall of Westminster Abbey, where, among other things, we can see the statute of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was murdered in El Salvador. Only a week ago the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, was honoured in Mr Speaker’s House for all the work he did on behalf of Oscar Romero. Combined with that, the work he has done for human rights over the past 50 or 60 years really is unparalleled. At the age of 17, when I was interviewed by a local newspaper, I was asked if I wanted to go into politics. I said, “Not really, but if ever I did I hope I would be like Eric Lubbock”—as he then was. If people are looking for a role model, they could do no better than look at the noble Lord, Lord Avebury.

Fifty years later there are other role models. I was very struck by the remarks of Malala Yousafzai, whom the Taliban tried to murder in Pakistan because she insisted on a girl’s right to an education, rightly insisting:

“One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world”.

Malala’s challenge and the fate of the abducted schoolgirls in Nigeria or those denied an education in Pakistan go to the heart of Article 18. It is at the heart of what we have been debating today and it is a theme to which we must persistently return.

It was the most reverend Primate who in his concluding remarks invoked Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Christian theologian who was executed by the Nazis. Bonhoeffer said:

“We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds … we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretence … intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical … What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians”.

We should not become worn down either, whatever price has to be paid. We have enormous privileges, opportunities, liberties and freedoms in this place and we must use them to speak out on behalf of those to whom so much reference has been made today. The theme of conscience has come up again and again, whether in the domestic or international context. That, too, goes to the heart of Article 18. It is about the balance of rights that were referred to in the debate.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester, in his valedictory address, enjoined and encouraged us to persist in what he called our defence of freedom of religion and belief. It is a message that we should all take to heart. We should never cease to use our privileges to speak up in the way that he has done for so long and so persistently. One noble Lord said that he could not understand the presence of the Bishops as an established part of your Lordships’ House. Others have been declaring interests; my Anglican wife is the daughter of a priest of 60 years’ standing in the Anglican Church, as his father was for 50 years. There are eight ordained Anglican clergy on my wife’s side of the family. I sometimes feel that it is a little like a family business. It seems to me—I know that my wife will want me to say this—that we are really blessed by the presence of the Bishops in this House, no one more so than the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester. At the conclusion of this debate, we all wish him the very best in his retirement.

Motion agreed.