Education (Assemblies) Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:30 pm on 10th September 2021.

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Photo of Baroness Murphy Baroness Murphy Crossbench 12:30 pm, 10th September 2021

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and I agree with every word that he and many people in the House today have said. One great advantage of speaking in the second half of a debate is that you will have heard so many good arguments.

I was going to quote another Bishop of Oxford. We have heard from the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford today. One of the successors of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, John Pritchard, when he was head of education at Oxford, made a very clear statement that he felt that personal prayer and direct worship was inappropriate. Religious education is of course completely different, but the personal prayer from a heartfelt faith is something that should not be forced on children, particularly in a society where so many people are not religious.

The Government’s failure to get to grips with reality is pretty disgraceful. They have not bothered to upgrade the policy since 1994. The current Minister, Nick Gibb, has written to say that if people are not implementing this policy they will be dealt with on an individual basis. We know very well that SACRE, the local committees that look after religious education, have no way of collecting data and nobody gives them any data about how religious assemblies are being implemented, so there is no data that the Minister could possibly collect. I worked out that there must be at least 16,490 schools not holding collective worship in assemblies, if they hold assemblies at all. One important matter in this Bill is that it ensures that assemblies are held to address those important moral questions that are so vital.

This reminded me of similar circumstances when the Government know that something is not being implemented. Do noble Lords realise that there are two Acts from 1297 still on the statute book that were apparently made redundant by Magna Carta later the same year but which have never been removed? The Law Commission looked at them quite recently in fact. Then there was an Elizabethan Act for compulsory Protestant worship on Sundays—what later became the Church of England, of course. Mr Monckton Milnes MP, on 11 February 1842, raised the issue that everybody knew that the Act was not being complied with, and had not been for maybe a hundred years. He was going to introduce a Bill to repeal that legislation, which of course was sometimes imposed on prisoners, who were fined. The Minister at that point replied that you cannot go around repealing laws just because they are obsolete. It was 11 February 1842, at col. 309 in vol. 60 of the Official Report. It took until 1886 to repeal that Act.

This is an opportunity for the Government to grasp the nettle. We want children to have enjoyable assemblies, to sing carols, to sing other sorts of songs that belong to other faiths and none, to enjoy them and to learn about moral issues and dilemmas and the great issues of the day. We want them to come together to do that. This Bill ensures that it would really happen and that we would get rid of this fudging and confabulation. I strongly support the Bill and I hope that the Government will be visionary and innovative in trying to address the issues.