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Local Government (Religious etc. Observances) Bill (Money)

Volume 589: debated on Tuesday 16 December 2014

Queen’s consent signified.

I beg to move,

That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Local Government (Religious etc. Observances) Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable under any other Act out of money so provided.

May I associate myself with your remarks, Madam Deputy Speaker?

The Government are keen that the Bill should move forward, and the passing of the money resolution is an important step in that process. The costs to local authorities of implementing the new freedoms in the Bill—to include prayers as part of official business, and to facilitate and support activities with a religious dimension—are seen as a new head of expenditure to be met out of the grants that authorities already receive from central Government. The motion refers to payments under other Acts being increased as a result of the Bill because, technically, a new head of expenditure is a notional increase for the purposes of Commons financial procedure, even though it might not, in fact, give rise to an increase in expenditure.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) for his work on the Bill. The House last debated it on 21 November, when the Government’s support for the Bill was made clear. We support allowing the members of local authorities the freedom to pray if they wish to and making this a matter of local choice once again.

We consider the provisions in the Bill to be important. They right a wrong decision that was taken by the High Court when it ruled that councils had no power to carry on the centuries-old tradition of holding prayers at their meetings. The costs associated with the provisions are negligible. The Bill will not compel anyone to pray or any local authority to include prayers in their official business, nor does it define what constitutes prayer. The Bill will ensure that local authorities can support, facilitate and be represented at events with a religious element. Again, nothing in the Bill will compel a local authority to do anything that it cannot already do, such as organise a Remembrance Sunday event safely by closing a road for a short time. Rather, it protects local authorities from those with an axe to grind, who might wish to challenge such a decision. As far as local authorities are concerned, we expect any new expenditure to be negligible.

I commend the motion to the House.

I shall speak briefly in support of the money resolution to my Bill. There was no opportunity to speak on Second Reading, so I want to put on the record my thanks to the Minister and her officials in the Box, and to colleagues across the House who have agreed to serve on the Public Bill Committee in the coming weeks and to support the Bill’s passage through the House.

I believe that putting the freedom to pray on a statutory footing for all local authorities is an important issue for elected representatives who serve communities across the UK. I want to put on record my thanks to all councillors—from county councillors to parish councillors —for the work that they do in the community on our behalf.

Finally, I am delighted to be able to take the Bill through Parliament and to protect people’s freedom to pray, because it is an important issue. As we approach Christmas, the celebration of the birth of who I believe to be the Prince of Peace, all elected officials might like to reflect that there may be more power in prayer than in any stroke of a Minister’s pen or ruling from the Chair, and that this Bill, which seeks to protect people’s freedom to pray, will enable people of all religious beliefs to seek guidance in their deliberations in elected office.

I rise to speak in support of the Bill. As we know, it came about owing to a successful challenge of Bideford town council’s practice of having religious prayers on its meeting agendas. The decision of the High Court in 2012 was that a local authority had no power to hold prayers as part of its formal business. The Bill will confirm unequivocally that prayers, religious observances or even philosophical observations may take place as part of the business of local authorities in England and Wales.

I welcome the fact that the Bill is not prescriptive. It will leave it to local communities to determine what, if any, observances are appropriate to them; where they should be placed on the agenda; and whether they should be faith-based or otherwise. We must see this as a matter of local choice. Religious observance is a matter where local choice should prevail and in respect of which the virtues of tolerance, sensitivity and community well-being should shine through.

This is a short, two-clause Bill with a simple intention that does not seem to conflict with the most liberal of expectations. It will enable local authorities of all types to include prayers if they wish to. It is not prescriptive, but enabling. I am content, on behalf of the Opposition, to wish the Bill and its purposes well.

Question put and agreed to.