All 1 Debates between Baroness D'Souza and Earl of Clancarty

Local Government (Religious etc. Observances) Bill

Debate between Baroness D'Souza and Earl of Clancarty
Friday 13th March 2015

(9 years, 3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Earl of Clancarty Portrait The Earl of Clancarty (CB)
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My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. Amendment 2 is consequential to Amendment 5. They all deal with new Section 138A, which is the meat of the Bill, concerning council prayers. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Garel-Jones, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Meacher and Lady Flather, for putting their names to Amendment 1, which seeks to remove council prayers from the Bill, but leaves new Section 138B, which deals with religious events. The noble Lord, Lord Garel-Jones, and the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, give their apologies that they cannot be present this morning.

This time two weeks ago, the House was discussing a global matter in the shape of the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Bill. We have gone from the global to the local, albeit applied nationally in England and Wales, and the very local indeed if you cast your eye over the very extensive list on pages 2 and 3 of bodies to be covered by this Bill. Nevertheless, this Bill is, or ought to be, understood as being part of something larger, which is the place of religion in society and, indeed, the place of religion in the workplace, which is the subject of a significant report published yesterday by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

At Second Reading, the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said that the Bill is a simple measure. In a way, that is true, but what he did not say is that it is an uncontroversial measure. There are Private Members’ Bills that pass through this House—we have had one or two recently—that have close to unanimous support from Peers and public alike. This is not such a Bill, and therefore deserves the scrutiny that it is now able to get.

One of my concerns about this Bill is the place it came from. Why was there felt to be a need for this Bill in the first place? That is the question to be asked of anyone who says that this is a modest measure. Instead of the Government asking how widely shared are the concerns that individuals may feel excluded after the 2012 High Court ruling, which would be the proper and realistic response to that ruling, in reaction a Bill has been brought in that simply wants to put us back to where we were and sweeps such concerns under the carpet and refuses to acknowledge them.

As I said at Second Reading, councillors are not elected for their religious beliefs. They are elected for what they are pledged to do for the local area and for their political affiliations. Councillors are the electorate’s servants. In that light, if we are to have this Bill, in the interests of what should be the scrupulous impartiality of councils towards all beliefs and non-beliefs, a better compromise solution would be silent prayer, which I have tabled as Amendment 3.

The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and I share views about areas of arts and culture. For example, I am completely with him in his campaign to restore and maintain the great cathedrals and churches, which are great religious works of art, but I do not believe in tradition for its own sake. The fact that a council has been saying prayers as part of official business for hundreds of years does not mean that it should be saying prayers for the next few hundred years, and not today if that is an inappropriate practice in the modern age. I stress that we now live in a multi-belief and non-belief culture. At the very least, traditions can be modified, and Amendments 4 and 5 are reasonable improvements to the Bill. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for his support for these amendments.

Amendment 4 would do quite a bit to mitigate a sense of exclusion by separating prayers and the remainder of business from each other. Amendment 5 ensures a two-thirds majority agreement that has to be renewed annually, ensuring that if prayers are a tradition they are nevertheless a living tradition that is not to be taken for granted. I hope that not only the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, but the two Front Bench speakers would agree that these are two very reasonable amendments to the Bill. I say “would” because, because of time constraints, we are in the invidious situation of this being an all-or-nothing Bill. I am not sure whether that is democracy in action, but it is the situation. I beg to move.

Baroness D'Souza Portrait The Lord Speaker (Baroness D'Souza)
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I should remind your Lordships that if this amendment is agreed to, I cannot call Amendments 2 to 5 by reason of pre-emption.