Parliamentary Democracy and Standards in Public Life

Lord Harries of Pentregarth Excerpts
Thursday 11th January 2024

(5 months, 2 weeks ago)

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Lord Harries of Pentregarth Portrait Lord Harries of Pentregarth (CB)
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My Lords, the Motion before us contains two key words: democracy and standards. I hope to say something briefly about each of them, and then to show they are fundamentally linked. Democracy is a precarious and precious achievement which is under threat in many places around the world—not just overt dictatorships but managed democracies, which have elections but then lock up political opponents, and which have a media, but one largely controlled by the Government or Government supporters.

We need to rediscover a real belief in the system we have in this country, because it actually allows us to express the better side of our nature—the desire for the common good—but also takes fully into account the darker side of our nature: our desire too often to pursue our own interests at the expense of other people, particularly organised groups pursuing their interests. As a great American theologian and political thinker, Reinhold Neibuhr, put it, the human

“capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary”.

People should be learning about this in schools, but the trouble is that citizenship education, which ought to be taught, is in a “parlous state”. Those are the words of your Lordships’ committee report, The Ties that Bind, which we have brought before the House a number of times. It says that citizenship education in schools has been degraded to a parlous state and needs to be radically and totally revised. I very much hope it is not too late for the present Government once again to look at citizenship education in schools, so that pupils come out of schools actually believing in the society in which we live and willing to take part in it.

Secondly, I will say something about standards. Even in a dictatorship, some moral principles are possible. There is a limit to the degree of corruption that even a dictatorship can put up with, but there is an integral link between moral principles and democracy. In much the same way that Adam Smith argued that moral principles were fundamental to the proper working of a free market, so they are absolutely fundamental to the proper working of democracy, quite simply because the people who rule us are elected. When we elect people, we do so because we desire to trust them: we want them to be trustworthy. We want them actually to try to put into practice the policies on which we have elected them. Unfortunately, as we have heard so often around the House today, that fundamental trustworthiness is no longer believed in by many people in our society—sadly and wrongly, perhaps, but that is the case.

I wonder whether, perhaps at the beginning of the new Parliament, the Lord Speaker in this House and the Speaker in the House of Commons might call a meeting in Westminster Hall where we can once again look at and think through those wonderful Nolan principles.

His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh

Lord Harries of Pentregarth Excerpts
Monday 12th April 2021

(3 years, 2 months ago)

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Lord Harries of Pentregarth Portrait Lord Harries of Pentregarth (CB) [V]
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What we have heard today has been truly remarkable and deeply moving. I shall briefly mention two aspects of His Royal Highness’s remarkable work that have not so far been emphasised, but before I do so I want to say something of a more general nature about his role.

We are honouring not just an outstanding individual, truly outstanding though he was, but someone who had a very special role within and relationship to the monarchy. I respect republicans—I was once a teenage republican myself, annoying my mother by refusing to stand up for the national anthem, which in those days was played at the end of films—but I underwent a genuine intellectual conversion during my 20s. The difficulty with having a president as Head of State is that because he is elected he can never be totally above politics. Our sovereign can; she can genuinely stand for the nation as a whole, whichever political party a person might belong to. More than that: because she is anointed as Queen by the Archbishop of Canterbury at Westminster Abbey, she also stands for the nation before God in a very special way. That is why the constitution of this country is not just parliamentary democracy per se but the Queen in Parliament under God. That is of course reflected in our daily prayers.

That leads me to the two special ways in which His Royal Highness supported the Queen in this role. One was the international interfaith group, which he founded with Prince Hassan of Jordan and Sir Evelyn Rothschild. The difference between that and other groups was not only that it was international, but that it brought together clergy as well as distinguished lay people, ambassadors and senior businesspeople to meet in different parts of the world. They met over a number of years, with the Duke, as a key founder member, always present.

Prince Philip clearly had a keen interest in religion, and I understand that his personal library was absolutely chock-full of books on religions of one kind or another. However, it is his public role to which we pay tribute here, where we know that he wanted to make a difference. He saw that one way of doing that was by helping religious institutions relate better to one another through their senior lay people.

The other contribution that I want to mention is his key role in the founding and ongoing work of St George’s House, Windsor. As is well known, he had a good relationship with successive deans of Windsor, and a very special friendship with Robin Woods, later the Bishop of Worcester. Robin Woods and the Duke founded the house, first as a place for clergy to meet for a long period of reflection and study, then as a place for senior or rising people in the secular world from all professions to come together for shorter periods to reflect on their fundamental values and beliefs and how these should be reflected in the modern world. We should not believe everything that we see and hear on “The Crown”, but there was a particularly good episode about the Duke and St George’s House.

The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury mentioned the Duke’s seriousness about the Christian faith, shown in the sharp questioning which he gave bishops at their weekends in Sandringham, but I remember his willingness to help nervous bishops be at ease. After dinner on the Saturday, when we had all had enough of making conversation of one kind or another, he invited them simply to relax with him, watching a film on a comfy sofa.

Today we honour not only a man who would be distinguished in any walk or life, especially the Royal Navy, his first love, but someone who strengthened the role of the monarchy over a long, rapidly changing period. He was a man who sought to relate that institution to the modern world in a way that made a real difference for good. I remember with particular gratitude his role in relation to religion in general, and the Church of England in particular.

Covid-19 Update

Lord Harries of Pentregarth Excerpts
Thursday 7th January 2021

(3 years, 5 months ago)

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Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait Baroness Evans of Bowes Park (Con)
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I thank my noble friend for his questions. He is absolutely right. We entirely agree that schools and colleges are the best place for children and young people to be, not just for education but for their health and well-being, which is why we tried so hard to keep them open. Unfortunately, as my noble friend said, we just could not do it. It was not that schools themselves were unsafe for either children or pupils; it is that, with the new variant, we need to use every lever at our disposal to reduce community transmission and contact. It was for that reason that schools were closed; it was not because teachers have not done fantastic work. My brother and sister-in-law, who are both teachers, spent Christmas trying to make their schools Covid secure, but we still had to close them. We will certainly keep this position under review; we will certainly try to bring back schools as soon as we can. Of course, regular testing will be at the centre of our plans. All that hard work will not be in vain; it will just be used slightly further away than we may have hoped.

Lord Harries of Pentregarth Portrait Lord Harries of Pentregarth (CB) [V]
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As the Leader of the House knows, it is not yet clear whether a person who has been vaccinated is still able to transmit the virus; it is quite possible in theory for them to have no symptoms themselves and yet to pass it on. I understand that a group of scientists is working on this issue. Is the Leader of the House able to indicate when those scientists might be able to report? Clearly, this is vital information which we need to have sooner rather than later.

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait Baroness Evans of Bowes Park (Con)
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I can assure the noble and right reverend Lord that PHE will be employing existing surveillance systems and enhanced follow-up of cases to monitor how effective the vaccine is in protecting against a range of outcomes, including infections, symptomatic disease, hospitalisations, mortality and onward transmission. I can assure him that that work is in progress, but I cannot give him a timescale. He will understand that we will need time to gather sufficient data to get a clear picture, but he is right that it will be critical.