All 1 Debates between Baroness D'Souza and Lord Avebury

Local Government (Religious etc. Observances) Bill

Debate between Baroness D'Souza and Lord Avebury
Friday 13th March 2015

(9 years, 3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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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.

Lord Avebury Portrait Lord Avebury (LD)
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My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and the Minister for the meeting we had with them to discuss the Bill and our amendments earlier in the week, even though it was apparent that there was a fundamental difference of opinion between us about the relationship between religion and the affairs of secular authorities. The noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, has done your Lordships an important service in enabling us to underline these differences, which may not be reflected so clearly among us as they are in the country at large.

As the Bill’s supporters observe at every opportunity, this Bill is permissive, but that does not justify it. It enables the majority of the persons on a passenger transport executive, for example, to hold prayers during their meetings and to support or facilitate, presumably with public money, a religious event. If they exercise these powers, they are in no way contributing to the comfort, welfare or any other benefit of their passengers, but on the contrary they are subtracting from the time available for considering how to improve the services they provide for the public.

The argument that these matters should be for the majority to decide is not acceptable. It is no triumph for democracy if the local authorities and other bodies covered by this Bill are given power to impose something which is bound to divide members from one another according to their religion or belief. It would mark out those who do not participate in the observance as not being full members of the body concerned, a body which in most cases would be subject to the public sector equality duty.

That duty, imposed by the Equality Act, means that any authority considering the use of these powers would have to consider whether they are compatible with the public sector equality duty, a matter to which I take it the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has given some thought. When he comes to reply, he can perhaps explain why he thinks the powers are indeed compatible with the public sector equality duty when, instead of enhancing religious freedom, the Bill imposes the procedures of a religious majority on those who have been elected to do a secular job.

Therefore, I support Amendment 1 in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, which omits proposed new Section 138A, which deals with prayers. If my noble friend Lord Cormack is not prepared to accept that proposal, I ask him at least to accept Amendments 2 and 4, which require a two-thirds majority for prayers.

No satisfactory answer has been given by the Bill’s supporters as to why those who wish to pray cannot do so informally before or after a meeting of the council or other body in their own time. Those who oppose council prayers are accused of intolerance. However, the advocates of prayers always refuse to acknowledge that no objection has been raised by us to prayer before council meetings, as indeed the National Secular Society suggested at the High Court hearing on the Bideford case.

As the Bill stands, those not wishing to participate in prayers have either to put up with them or draw attention to themselves by leaving the chamber in front of the public and then returning, probably without the chair making their nonconformity less obvious by suspending the proceedings. Both options are gratuitously unwelcoming, discourteous and divisive.