Consideration of Bill, not amended in the Public Bill Committee.
New Clause 1
“In observing the provisions in this Act, councils shall keep in mind the pre-eminence of the Judaeo-Christian tradition as the historical foundation of the United Kingdom.”—(Sir Edward Leigh.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 4, page 1, line 15, clause 1, at end add—
‘(4) Subsections (1) and (2) do not reduce the obligations of the authority not to discriminate against—
(a) those with religious beliefs different from those supported or espoused in the prayers or other observances referred to in this section; or
(b) those without religious beliefs,
and to treat them equally in line with the Public Sector Equality Duty under the Equality Act 2010, section 149.’
I warmly welcome the Bill, which seeks to provide a legislative basis for continuing the tradition, wherever it may be desired, of prayers before meetings in local government. The purpose of new clause 1, without at all inhibiting the freedom of councils and local authorities to employ or not employ prayer at their meetings, is to ask those bodies to keep in mind the religious heritage of our country and the religious foundations of the state, which are of a Judaeo-Christian nature. That is what my new clause proposes—having regard to the Judeao-Christian nature of our country.
Helston town council in Cornwall came in for a bit of flak in 2010, when resident Pat Woodhouse attacked the council for having “Christian-only prayers”. The local newspaper reported her to have said:
“Let’s face it, we are supposed to be politically correct now.”
What authority has determined that “we” are “supposed” to be politically correct? Why should citizens of any philosophical or religious world view unthinkingly surrender to the totalitarian and ever-shifting ideology of political correctness? In the Helston case, Ms Woodhouse is reported to have said:
“If anyone really took offence they could criticise the council. It isn’t right. With respect to the reverend who opens the meeting with a prayer, is it politically correct to only have Christian prayers at the beginning of the meeting?”
Note that she uses the word “if” anyone took offence—we are dealing with a pure hypothetical.
Doubtless, opponents of Christian prayer can cite actual cases where offence has been taken by someone, but I suspect it is pretty rare. We are supposed to be mature adults. I believe that anyone who is grievously offended by the Christian nature of prayers in councils needs to have some regard to the roots of our country. I am sure that both sides of the argument agree that we should not be a nation of triumphant Christian supremacists, but nor should we be a nation of molly-coddlers seeking to wrap the entire population in a protective layer of liberal gauze. We should abide by the principles of tolerance and respect: tolerance for belief or non-belief, twinned with respect not just for this country’s present, but its history.
We in Britain are known for our adherence to tradition. I would argue that this Parliament is the most beholden to tradition of any legislature in the world. Chesterton famously described tradition as
“the democracy of the dead.”
For when we make our decisions today, why should we not take into account the Britons of centuries past? Of course, the reality today is that the Christianity associated with the state—prayers before meetings, Remembrance day services, the role of the Church of England—is a thin whitewash over the official reigning ideology of liberalism. That is true, but these acts, be they prayer or worship, tie us intimately with our ancestors. I believe that that is what conservatism is all about. They connect us, I dare say, with the communion of Saints, four of whose number—George, Andrew, David and Patrick—serve as the traditional patrons and protectors of these nations. One can see their images in mosaic form looking down upon us in the Central Lobby of this Palace. Even in law we have the four quarter days of the year: Lady day, the feast of the Annunciation; Midsummer, the feast of St John the Baptist; Michaelmas, the feast of the Archangel Michael; and Christmas, the great feast of the Incarnation of Our Lord, which is celebrated so widely among those of profound religious belief or of none. The reason the tax year starts on 6 April is that it is the Gregorian equivalent of Lady day in the old Julian calendar that we in Britain held out in using for so long.
It is important to recall that other laws reinforce the Judaeo-Christian foundations of our society, and they should be celebrated in prayers before our meetings. Nobody is suggesting that should be compulsory; it is simply the decision of the council. Schools are still required to provide
“daily collective worship wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character”.
That is in our legislation. The Guardian finds that “incredible”, and it is worth noting that while we Conservatives can take credit for this requirement in passing the Education Reform Act 1988, The Guardian says that this was last reaffirmed in 1998 under new Labour—so presumably it is not that controversial.
It should be recalled that the etymology of the word “worship” comes from “worth ship”, the act of attributing or recognising worth, honour, esteem or distinction. With their conversion to Christianity, the Anglo-Saxon kings could no longer exert an arbitrary power over the kingdoms and peoples, but were subject to and restrained by, they realised, a higher power. This worship or esteeming of God laid the foundations for His creation—man—with numerous consequent ideas flowing forth about the dignity of the individual and our freedom of conscience. After all, what value is there to worship if it is not done as an act of free will?
Even more recent aspects of British society have Christian roots. Lord Alton, a former Member of this House, now in the other place, has written eloquently about the Christian foundations of the welfare state, noting that
“the thoughts, words and actions of the Christian community were central to bringing”
the welfare state “to fruition”.
Is it any wonder that what we can fairly describe as traditionally Christian countries are the ones that are today so tolerant of those of other faiths or indeed of none? The traditionally Christian societies are the most successful economically because they are tolerant of all other beliefs. It is that tolerance that has laid our economic success.
When we look at the past 50 years and observe officially atheist states such as the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China or officially Islamic republics such as Iran and Pakistan, we find their level of tolerance disappointing at best. Would someone rather be an atheist in Tehran where the mullahs rule the roost or in Beirut where the political and legal culture took root during the decades in which Lebanon had a Christian majority? I suspect that the overwhelming majority of British atheists are mature and respectful people, tolerant and perhaps even appreciative of the Christian foundations of the state and society. Rare is the man or woman given to sudden fits of apoplectic rage at the appearance of a nativity scene in public around Christmastide.
It has been rare in our time that an event has promoted as much comment and discussion on the nature of freedom and its responsibilities as the recent tragedy in Paris. France, of course, has a unique status in British society, serving simultaneously as our favourite traditional enemy as well as our closest friend, whose culture we most enjoy, love and revel in more than that of any other country. Britons will be the first gently to mock the French and some of their silly ways—and we have some silly ways— but our reaction to the recent atrocities committed in Paris has shown that we are the first to rush to their defence and express our solidarity with the French people. Chesterton was very prescient when he restated that to have a right to do something is different from being right in doing so. We believe in the freedom of speech, and while we hope that this freedom is used responsibly, we know that any attempts by the state to act as a determinant or guarantor of what is and what is not said is not a responsible exercise of freedom and is inherently threatening to our liberty. That is why I was a prominent supporter of the Reform Section 5 campaign about the right to offend other people. In this society, we have a right to offend others. If, dare I say it, prayers before council meetings offend some people—I doubt if anyone will be very offended—I believe that it is an inherent right nevertheless and it should be exercised.
It may astonish the House for a moment, but I confess that there are some aspects of political correctness that I find welcome. Political correctness to a certain extent incorporates a good old-fashioned sense of politeness. I am not a Muslim, so satirical depictions of Mohammed are ostensibly none of my business, but I do not understand the mentality that seeks intentionally to degrade and insult someone else’s most deeply held beliefs. To me, it seems plainly rude and ungentlemanly, and while these terms are viewed by some in our society as old-fashioned, it is just such forms of tradition and social dignity that say we should not deliberately intend to insult someone’s religion. That is up to the individual, not the state. It is such ideas, too, that affirm that we should not go slaughtering people because they insult us and our religion. In the end, being outrageous is all too often employed by the unoriginal and uninspired as a handy substitute for talent.
This is an opportunity to think more generally about the role of religion in our society and the world. What a shame, but also how natural, that religion is so often in the headlines because of warfare and conflict—we are all familiar with the so-called Islamic state. However, there are no headlines about the small kindnesses, the little acts of love and dignity, that people all around the world undertake, inspired either wholly or in part by their faith. I see no harm in councils’ proclaiming that faith before their meetings.
Recently, in the House, we debated the subject of Britons who have gone abroad to commit acts of terror and fight as jihadists. What is striking is that so many of them are not immigrants to this land, but were born and raised here. Perhaps a generation before them was raised in a religious context, whether individuals were personally pious or not. The increasing absence of religion from our society makes it more difficult for us to comprehend Islam. That absence also creates personal difficulties for many people who seek a deeper meaning in life. I believe that a little religion, such as prayers before council meetings, actually prevents outrageous intolerance.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point in support of his new clause, but will he confirm that, because of the way in which it is drafted, nothing in it would restrict prayers to those from the Judaeo-Christian tradition? It only requires that that tradition be kept “in mind”. Could not prayers from other religions take place as well?
I drafted my new clause carefully. It is meant to constitute a serious contribution to the debate. I am not arguing that there should, or must, be prayers before a council meeting. Of course, no one needs to go to them anyway. It is simply a decision that is made at the time of the council meeting. Nor am I arguing that the prayers must be of a Judaeo-Christian nature. I am, however, making the serious point, in this House of Commons, that this is our past. This is our foundation. This is what has made us free.
We cannot just say that we must have a “time for reflection” before council meetings, and that anything goes, because if we do that we lose contact with our history. I think that in losing contact with our history of tolerance—which is the foundation, or essence, of the British state—we actually encourage religious extremism. It is often people in whose families there is absolutely no religion who are led astray into following bizarre sects and the like.
It is not just our past, though, is it? It is also our present. In Parliament, we start every day with prayers, and those prayers are Christian prayers; they are not from any other religion. However, people do not have to participate in them if they do not wish to. My hon. Friend is much more religious than I am, but I am not aware of anyone who objects to starting the day with prayers. It is actually a rather good way in which to start the day. Wouldn’t it be nice if local authorities started their proceedings in the same way as Parliament?
In Parliament, when we start our day with Prayers, we obviously start our day with prayers of the Church of England, which is the established faith in our country. If my hon. Friend wished to enshrine the traditions of this country in the Bill, did he not consider enshrining the Judaeo-Christian tradition of the Church of England rather than any other Judaeo-Christian tradition?
I think I would have been criticised if I had done that, although I should have been happy to do it. Speaking for myself—if it is at all relevant—I am very ecumenical. I serve on the Lincoln cathedral council, and I have absolutely no objection to taking part in Church of England services and Church of England prayers; nor, I am sure, does anyone else who is sitting here. However, I think that if I had tried to lay down a particular denomination, I would have been severely criticised. As far as I am aware, the Church of England is a Christian denomination. A broad encompassing new clause which talks about Christianity does not prevent Church of England prayers from taking place. So I am afraid that I cannot accept that argument, but if my hon. Friend—who tabled the Bill—wants to advance it, it is for him to do so.
Secular liberalism often purports to have the answer to religion. Everyone and everything is free, and people can do whatever they want. Yet there is a curious aversion to those who choose to do religious things, especially if they are done in public. Why do some people have an aversion to others having prayers before Parliament and before council meetings? I am not sure that I understand that aversion, although I am sure it is sincerely felt.
In reality, the liberal secularist perspective is as much an all-encompassing and behaviour-determining world view as Christianity, Judaism, Islam or any religion. In purporting, whether explicitly or implicitly, to be “above” religion, liberal secularism is making truth claims just as strongly as religions do. Somehow this can be viewed as reassuring, as we are just dealing with one religion or world view as we have dealt with others. The new clause seeks to reaffirm our connection to the past through the actions of the present. There is a grave danger of we in Britain becoming severed from our roots, and lacking an understanding of our history. Such a deracinated population would be much easier to manipulate, whether by a Hitler, a Stalin, or some other modern-day tyrant whose dominion we fear. Asking not even that we affirm the Judaeo-Christian tradition of our country, but merely that councils keep it in mind, is one small way of keeping us in touch with our roots. That is why I propose my new clause.
May I end by reading out that marvellous prayer which we used to say in this House, and which is worth quoting from? We used to say that we
“humbly beseech thee to send down thy Heavenly Wisdom from above, to direct and guide us in all our consultations; and grant that, we having thy fear always before our eyes, and laying aside all private interests, prejudices, and partial affections, the result of all our counsels may be to the glory of thy blessed Name, the maintenance of true Religion and Justice, the safety, honour, and happiness of the Queen, the publick wealth, peace and tranquillity of the Realm, and the uniting and knitting together of the hearts of all persons and estates within the same”.
What glorious language from our established Church, from the King James Bible, from the Prayers before Parliament. I commend my new clause to the House.
I do not want to take up too much time because there is a lot of business to be got through this morning and I do not want to hold it up. I agree with much of what my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) says. He speaks, of course, as a prominent Roman Catholic, so I thought his answer to the last intervention on him was glorious. I have a probing amendment—amendment 4—which I almost certainly will not press to a Division.
I am a politician so my natural course is to wish to please people—if someone does not have that trait, they are unlikely to be elected—and so it is rather odd that I shall spend much of this morning disappointing people. First, I shall disappoint people by saying I am not in the least religious. My father was once the Second Church Estates Commissioner, and I was christened and confirmed, but since then I have lost those beliefs and the faith that I once had, and I am perfectly comfortable with that. This is the first time, however, that I have ever acknowledged that in public. It may be true that the pressure on a Conservative politician in particular to keep quiet about not being religious is very similar to the pressure that there has been about keeping quiet about being gay. For the avoidance of doubt, I am not gay either, but I just want to say that it is telling that it has taken me 28 years in this House—and, frankly, the knowledge that I will not be standing at the next election—to make this point.
I remember that when Peter Walker was a Minister answering questions in the House, he was asked something like whether his motivation for supporting a particularly right-wing policy had been sycophancy or cowardice, and his answer was, “Almost certainly both.” I would like to give the same answer for my having kept quiet about not being religious. So I shall disappoint some of my constituents, some members of my family—many of whom are strongly religious—and some hon. Members and hon. Friends by saying that I believe that the National Secular Society has a point: not everyone is religious.
In order to reserve a seat in the House on a crowded business day, such as Budget day, we have to put in a prayer card and come into the Chamber for Prayers. I do not have a major problem with that because I was brought up in a Christian household in a country that has an established Church of England, but really, why should I have to do that if I am not religious? It does seem to be a relic of the past. My hon. Friend said that this was our past and, although he was brought up short by an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), I think he was right. More importantly, the requirement to pray in order to reserve a seat seems out of touch with the country that we politicians are meant to represent.
That is a fair point, and I will come on to that in a moment when I talk about the potential contents of the prayer.
I was saying that the practice seems out of touch with the majority of the people we represent, because only a tiny proportion of our constituents go to church. According to the 2006 Church census, just over 6% of British people go to church. In a YouGov poll in 2011, 34% of UK citizens said that they believed in God or gods. However, according to the 2008 European social survey, 46.94% of UK citizens—nearly half—never pray. I find that an odd statistic, because it implies that 20% of UK citizens pray but do not believe in God.
Part of the Bill is about celebrating and protecting the traditions of our land. Of course, I believe in Father Christmas, which is one of the reasons that I am happy to celebrate Christmas, but how many people who celebrate Christmas still truly believe in Father Christmas, as opposed to appearing to do so simply because they enjoy the traditions and celebrations of that time of year?
My right hon. Friend the First Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons used to give a speech about the really difficult questions that a Leader of the Opposition could ask the Prime Minister. The most difficult question that he was able to come up with was “Does the Prime Minister believe in Father Christmas?”, because whatever answer the Prime Minister gave, he would frankly be scuppered. So I shall not answer my hon. Friend’s wonderful question. Instead, I shall move on to tell him what is wrong with his Bill, if I may. I shall do so in the most gentle way, because I know that he is motivated by the good of the country and of the people he represents.
Of course I know that my hon. Friend’s Bill would not force people to pray, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) has just said. I know that it would not force councils to decide to include prayers as part of their business, although the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) proposes that councils “shall”—rather than “may”—include time for prayers. I shall come to that point later. I also know that the Bill would leave the decision to local authorities, and what could be fairer than that?
However, the Bill would allow the majority of local councillors to include, as part of the council’s business, a practice that might be embarrassing and possibly even anathema to other councillors. Prayer is not anathema to me, as I was brought up in a Christian household; I just find it rather quaint. If people think that their god listens to what they ask for rather than what their god thinks is right and appropriate, that is a matter for them—it does not bother me. But why need I sit through it? Let me move on to the possibility of it being anathema. What am I to do if I am a local councillor where religious observance is to be part of the business? What am I do to do if the prayers offered actually are anathema to me?
Let us suppose that a council is made up of a majority of fundamentalist Muslims, who decide that the religious observance should be not only Islamic, but radically and possibly violently so. Then let us suppose that a prayer is offered which calls for retribution on those who draw cartoons of the Prophet. I share the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough that what Charlie Hebdo was doing was impolite.
Surely the right hon. Gentleman realises, as most people in the Chamber will, that in such circumstances the appropriate behaviour would be to call the police immediately, because the gentleman in question who was giving those prayers would have incited people to hatred?
Yes, but one can create a prayer that does not incite people to hatred but which nevertheless remains anathema to the people listening to it. Let me give the hon. Gentleman another example, in a Christian context. What happens if the prayers call on God to grant enlightenment to those who support gay marriage? That might be anathema to some of the councillors who do support gay marriage. What should one do as a councillor in those circumstances? Should one heckle the priest or the imam? Should one walk out, even though, as a councillor, it is one’s right and indeed one’s duty to be in the council meeting, preferably for the whole time.
So the National Secular Society, which I would like to thank for drawing some of these issues to my attention—I am not a member of the NSS and I doubt I ever will be—has a point when it says:
“The absence of prayers from the formal business of local authority meetings does not impede the religious freedoms of believers or deny anybody the right to pray.”
If local authorities want to hold a moment of reflection at the beginning of a meeting, they can do so. If councillors wish to meet for prayers before the meeting, they can do so, and no change in the law is needed to achieve it. So it is the principle of the Bill that is of concern to me, but the proposal tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough highlights some of the concerns that undermine the value of the principle of the Bill.
My amendment 4 is about the public sector equality duty, whose effect is similar to the first amendment to the US constitution, which states:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.
That has been interpreted in the United States by a majority opinion of the Supreme Court in the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway, which was decided in May of last year, to require that prayer said before local authority meetings should not discriminate against minority faiths in determining who may offer a prayer.
The rather odd effect of that decision was that at a meeting of Lake Worth city commission last month the invocation was given by an atheist called Preston Smith, who began it with the words:
“May the efforts of this council blend the righteousness of Allah with the all-knowing wisdom of Satan.”
The fact that the effect of the public sector equality duty on this Bill is that local authorities choosing to hold religious observance in their meetings will not then be able lawfully to discriminate against the observances of the religion of Satanism might surprise my hon. Friends, but it seems to me to be a clear and unavoidable interpretation of the effect of the two statutes.
Each time I have risen in support of this Bill, I have sought to emphasise my reason for doing so, and it is that this Bill seeks to protect a freedom of choice, and indeed a freedom of local choice. This Bill makes it clear that the choice of including prayers, or not, is for the local authority alone. Equally, I do not believe that it is right to go further than that. To go further would undermine our trust in local authorities to take account of the views and traditions of their communities and to make the right decisions.
I speak from my own experience in local government, in an area of many and diverse faiths and of strong communities, religious and non-religious, where the inclusion of prayer was something that united those communities rather than divided them. In our council, prayer and reflection was an opportunity to bring people together. So many of our prayers, which were led each year by the chaplain to the mayor—of whatever faith—contained universal messages that underlined shared values, a sense of unity and community that reflected our diversity. I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), as I am minded not to support his proposed new clause today should he push it to a vote. It seems to me that we would be stepping beyond the important line and risk fettering the discretion that we want to give to public bodies to make their own localised decision.
I say to the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot)—he is indeed a gentleman and I shall certainly miss him when he leaves this House—that I agree with the sentiment and intentions behind amendment 4. But I am confident that local authorities and public bodies, all of which are already subject to the public sector equality duty, will exercise their choice with the utmost sensitivity to their communities. We should trust their judgment and believe that they will make the right choices and not the wrong ones.
It is important that we maintain that trust in anticipation that local authorities will be sensitive to local communities and their responsibilities within the law. I remain hopeful that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his new clause.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) on his work on the Bill, the aims of which are wholly supported by the Government. There was a useful discussion about the Bill in Committee where support for it was clear. There was recognition that the Bill is really about freedom rather than compulsion: the freedom to pray or not to pray; the freedom for a local authority collectively to make a decision to hold prayers as part of official business, or not; and the freedom of individual councillors to attend the meeting during that item of business, or not—there would be no requirement to sit through it, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) said.
In Committee, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) described the Bill’s provisions on giving local authorities the freedom to hold prayers as part of official business as a measure so gentle that someone would have to work very hard to find a way of taking any sort of umbrage or insult from it. That is an excellent way of describing the provisions and intent of the Bill; they are indeed gentle. It is worth reminding ourselves why the Bill is necessary at all. The Bill gives councils that statutory power and gives them the freedom to pray.
I will not be supporting the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh). It is not consistent with the spirit of the Bill, which is about trusting local people to make local decisions. We should trust them to do that. It would be wrong to single out any one particular faith or to identify any one particular tradition. The Bill as drafted is absolutely correct to celebrate our multi-faith society and because it gives local authorities freedom rather than compelling them to take certain actions, it is not necessary to require them to be mindful of their obligations not to discriminate against those with religious beliefs and those without religious beliefs. There is no requirement for anyone who does not wish to attend town hall prayers to do so, so this provision is not necessary.
With those reassurances, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire will not press the new clause and the amendment.
I have a lot of sympathy with the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), as it sits very closely with my own beliefs. I believe that there is a direct link between praying for things within one’s own religion and things happening in one’s life. I am a Christian and I am proud of it and, in a way, the Bill has given me the opportunity on occasion to bear witness to my own faith and the belief I have in the power of religion in our society.
Although I agree with the sentiments of the new clause, I do not think it should be supported, largely because the Bill is permissive in nature and has sought to encompass the wide group of faiths in our society today. Much of the criticism of the Bill has focused on the fact that people of different faiths or no faith at all would be or would feel discriminated against in the council chamber if prayers were to be held. I do not think that the Bill as drafted could be accused of that, and it was described in Committee, as the Minister has just said, as the gentlest of Bills.
It would be a mistake to single out any particular religion on the face of the Bill. We are a multi-faith society. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough spoke of the different faiths in our society and of how people of all faiths and of none enjoy living in a society that acknowledges and respects their faith, so it would be a mistake to remove from councils the freedom to decide their own business. The entire Bill has been about freedom and the freedom of local authorities to make individual decisions about how they conduct their business.
Can we be clear? My hon. Friend refers to taking away the freedom of local authorities to decide these matters, but I do not think that anything in the new clause proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) takes away any freedom. If it were to be passed, it would merely require that they keep in mind the Judaeo-Christian tradition.
I thank my hon. Friend and near neighbour in Bury North for raising that point. I understand it, but in a multi-faith society in which all faiths are respected and acknowledged and in which people of no faith are also respected and acknowledged it is important that we do not prefer in legislation one particular faith. He might disagree with that view, but I think that the Bill as drafted is acceptable to people of all faiths and of none and I fear that to start preferring one faith might create division in our council chambers where none needs to exist or should exist.
My hon. Friend mentioned Ms Woodhouse, who objected so strongly to council prayers. If the Bill is enacted, there is a way for her to make her objections heard: she can stand for the local council, get elected, argue in the council chamber that there should not be prayers and win the support of the majority of her colleagues. There will then be no obligation on them to have prayers. If she finds the issue so offensive, that course of action is open to Ms Woodhouse.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) made an interesting and thoughtful speech about the pressure that colleagues sometimes feel to profess faith when they have none or not to profess faith when they have a deep-seated belief. That shines a light on the pressure that there is in public life and the interplay between faith and politics.
The Bill does not seek to define what constitutes a prayer—nor, importantly, what constitutes religion. Prayer will be different for every individual Member who prays, has ever prayed or has ever thought about praying, and so will religion. Even an individual’s prayers, whether daily, weekly or in the evening, will be done differently each time. The Bill provides a practical, workable, sensible approach, giving councils the opportunity to include in their business time for prayers, other religious observances or observances connected with any philosophical belief that they think appropriate.
Tolerance and religion are joint values that bind society together. We are a multi-faith nation, and we are stronger for that; that is why this is a multi-faith Bill. The Bill’s strengths lie in its simplicity—it makes provision not for any particular faith, but for all faiths. As has been said repeatedly during its passage through the House, the Bill does not compel anyone to take part in prayers.
I hope that, with those assurances, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire and my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough will withdraw their amendments.
I’ll get over it.
I am also disappointed that my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) does not want to accept my amendment. I repeat that my amendment does not require prayers in the Christian tradition. It was put forward in a serious way, but my hon. Friend says it is not appropriate for this country, which is a multi-faith and presumably multicultural society. Without wanting to repeat what I said in my speech, I should say that that was precisely my point. We should have regard for the fact that our roots are of a Judeo-Christian nature. I was simply asking councils to have regard to it.
Much as I feel strongly about the issue, I am aware that the Lobbies of the House may not be seething with hon. Members this morning; if we were to have a vote, there might not be the required number to enable the Bill to continue. I cannot risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It is too risky to have a vote for that reason. However, I still have one or two friends left in the world and some are in the other place. I shall have a word with them in the hope that the other place might return to the issue. Meanwhile, in a spirit of good will, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion, by leave, withdrawn.
Powers of councils
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 1, page 1, line 5, after “may”, insert
“if it has been resolved by a two thirds majority of the members of the council, in a meeting called specifically for that purpose”.
Amendment 12, page 1, line 5, leave out “may” and insert “shall”.
Amendment 3, page 1, line 8, at end add—
“( ) in no case may more than three minutes be devoted to business under this section.”
Amendment 6, page 1, line 17, at beginning insert “Subject to section 138BB”.
Amendment 2, page 1, line 17, after “may”, insert
“if it has been resolved by a two thirds majority of the members of the council, in a meeting called specifically for that purpose”.
Amendment 7, page 2, line 7, at end insert—
“138BB Local referendum on religious observances
(1) If a local authority wishes to use powers under sections 138A or 138B, it must obtain the consent of the electorate through a local referendum.
(2) The referendum is to be held on a date decided by the local authority and may be held on the ordinary day of local elections.
(3) The persons entitled to vote in the referendum are those who, on the day of the referendum would be entitled to vote as electors at an election for councillors of the local authority.
(4) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision as to the conduct of referendums under this section.
(5) If a local authority wishes to use powers under section 138A, the question to be asked is of the form “The council of the (County/City/Borough/District) of proposes to hold religious observances as part of the formal business of council meetings. Do you agree that the council should be allowed to do this?”.
(6) If a local authority wishes to use powers under section 138B, the question to be asked is of the form “The council of the (County/City/Borough/District) of proposes to support and/or be formally represented at religious events. Do you agree that the council should be allowed to do this?”.
(7) If the majority of persons voting in the referendum under either subsection (5) or (6) approve of the proposal, the local authority may use the powers under the respective sections 138A or 138B for four years from the calendar date of the referendum.
(8) In no event may a further referendum be held within four years of the day on which a referendum under this section has been held.”
There are several amendments in my name. The first is on the need to have a local referendum before the issue, which in some cases is controversial, is decided. All I ask is that we should give the local electorate power to make this decision. What could be a greater example of localism than that?
Amendment 1 suggests that there should be a two thirds majority of councillors called in a council meeting specially designed for the purpose. That is in order to ensure that the councillors themselves decide the matter by a strong majority, rather than it being delegated, for example, to the mayor or even to officers of the council to make a decision. Again, that is a good example of localism. Amendment 3 proposes that any such religious observance should be limited to three minutes because, in view of what I have already said at some great length, I do not think we want to have these religious observances extended too long.
I hope that those simple amendments might find favour with my hon. Friend the Minister, but if not I shall withdraw them.
I intend to follow the lead of my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) and be brief. I agree with the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), that many of us will miss my right hon. Friend when he is no longer in the House. He has had a great impact on my time here. I am very grateful to him for that and wish him well for the future.
I should make it clear from the start that my amendment 12 was always designed to be a probing amendment intended to stimulate a debate. I have no intention of pressing it to the vote. It changes the word “may”, with reference to having prayers at council meetings, to “shall”. The only reason I tabled the amendment was to give the opportunity to debate what is so wrong with this as a practice that councils follow.
I am surrounded by Members who are much more devoutly religious than I am. I am not coming at this as some sort of fundamental Christian—far from it. However, one of the things I have been struck by in my time in Parliament is the worth of Prayers at the beginning of the day. Even though it would not be my normal practice to engage in Prayers, I think it sets us up well for our day in Parliament. I will give an illustration; my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) did something similar. When we start our day with Prayers, what strikes me are the following words—it is amazing how many people quickly forget the Prayer the moment they have said it, which to some extent argues against me, but saying it and hearing it is worthwhile—
“Lord, the God of righteousness and truth, grant to our Queen and her government, to Members of Parliament and all in positions of responsibility, the guidance of your Spirit. May they never lead the nation wrongly through love of power, desire to please, or unworthy ideals but laying aside all private interests and prejudices keep in mind their responsibility to seek to improve the condition of all mankind”.
I do not believe that I am the only person who is always touched by that part of the daily prayer. It seems to embody what we are here to do. Every day it is a worthwhile reminder of that for us all. What is wrong with that? How can anybody find that offensive, no matter what their religious belief is?
The hon. Gentleman said that although we say those words, sometimes they are not observed in the subsequent proceedings of the Chamber. I recall the words of Claudius in “Hamlet” after he had been praying, ostensibly, when he said:
“My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”
Order. I might be able to help a little bit. We are not discussing the Prayers of the Chamber. I recognise the benefits and there is an analogy between the two, but the debate is about local government prayers. I have allowed a lot of leeway, but I am sure we will hear the connection made shortly.
I am grateful for your indulgence, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Politicians, whether in the national Parliament or in local government, should always be mindful of these things when they start their proceedings. I am not aware that anybody, whether they have no faith, a Christian faith or some other faith, objects to our starting our proceedings in that way or finds it offensive. For people who do not want to participate in prayers, there is no obligation on them to do so; they can sit them out, as some do, and I fully respect them for that. It should not be compulsory for individuals to have to engage in prayer, but I do not see the objection to people in politics—people serving the public—starting with a reminder of their duty to the people they are elected to serve. That is why I tabled my amendment.
I would go slightly further than my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough. I think it is important that we start with Christian prayers. We are a Christian country and that is our heritage; we should never be ashamed of it. I do not think that people of other faiths are offended by the fact that we are a Christian country either. We still have an established Church of England, and I do not see the problem with that, whether or not we all support it personally. That is our heritage in this country; it is what our values are based on. We should not be ashamed of that; we should be proud of it. It should not cause any offence if everybody started their proceedings in this way.
This is a probing amendment and I do not intend to press it to a Division. I just wanted to stimulate a debate and make people think about why this is not such a bad thing.
I have a couple of points to make on this group of amendments.
Amendment 7 deals with a requirement on a local authority to determine this question by holding a local referendum. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) said that he would not press the amendment to a Division, because in view of the financial position of the country and of local authorities, it would make complete nonsense of the Bill. One of the great beauties of this Bill is that it does not impose any financial obligation on local authorities. The amendment would impose a completely unnecessary burden and make a mockery of all the other decisions that local authorities take.
As I understand it, the Bill already has a money resolution, so I think we can be satisfied on that point. The amendment would certainly increase the amount from what was originally envisaged; it is for others to determine whether that requires a change to the money resolution.
In view of all the matters that local authorities decide for themselves without the necessity of a referendum, requiring a local authority to hold a referendum across the whole district merely to determine whether it holds prayers is bordering on the faintly ridiculous. I therefore oppose the amendment.
My second point is on amendment 12, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), which would replace the word “may” with the word “shall”. My clear view is that all council meetings should start with prayers and they should be of a Christian nature, but I am against making it mandatory. I think it should be for local authorities to determine for themselves whether to hold prayers.
Let me put to the Chamber a particular scenario. This might be unlikely, but it just might happen that, for whatever reason, all the elected councillors in a particular area have no religious belief whatsoever. They might all be atheists. It would be absurd, would it not, if they were required by the Bill to hold prayers before their meetings? That might not happen, but it should be for the councillors to decide for themselves.
We are all about localism; we are not about imposing obligations on local councils. It should be up to the individual council to decide for itself whether it holds prayers. I hope that they will all decide, without any difficulty, to have a few minutes of prayers and reflection before each council meeting and that those prayers will be of a Christian nature. That is my view, and I oppose my hon. Friend’s suggestion.
That is the same as me—my constituency is Somerset North East and we North Easts have to stick together in the broad scheme of things.
I support the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot). I always believe in trusting the people. I like having referendums because the assent of the people shows where their spirit and mind are. I happen to think that most people would turn out in a referendum and vote in favour of prayers if the council thought that was a good idea. I think we would find that people are very much in tune with the history of the nation and that they like the fact that, even if it is not their Church —it is not mine—this country has an established religion. I happen to feel that the ceremony, tradition and link with our history that that brings is broadly popular, even with people who are not of that faith, and, therefore, that the referendums would pass. I would be more than happy, however, to put that to the vote, to see whether my speculation is right or whether the view of secular society is right.
My hon. Friend is being extremely kind and, as always, courteous and articulate, but if I were to join him in calling for a vote on the amendment, the entire Bill might collapse. That is not necessarily what I want to achieve, because I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) is promoting the Bill with the best possible motivation. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) would like to reconsider his position.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention. I am well aware of the numbers issue and, for obvious reasons, I would certainly not want to see a Division in which fewer than 35 Members participated. If my right hon. Friend chooses to withdraw his amendment, I shall not shout—or even mutter—against that. I shall certainly support him if he does that. I simply support the underlying principle of his amendment.
I disagree to an extent with my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) on the cost. Of course, there will be some cost, but a referendum could be held on an ordinary council election day—it would not need to be a special election day—on the first Thursday in May, so I think the cost is broadly affordable. One should always be willing to put one’s own view to the test of the view of the British people—the electorate—and have confidence that they will come to the correct decision.
There is an extraordinary trend of radicalism in being on the side of the secularists, and I am not entirely sure that I support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), which is a very rare event, because he is one of the wisest Members of this House and almost invariably right. However, I feel that “shall” does not go far enough and goes too far at the same time. I would be in favour of a Bill saying that every sitting of every council should start with an extraordinary form mass—the Tridentine mass—as that would be absolutely splendid. Ideally, it would be a high mass with so much incense that people started sneezing. It would be a fine piece of legislation, but it is not what the Bill is trying to do; it is simply to enable people to pray if they want to. The word “shall” would take this Bill too far, but if one were introduced in the next set of private Members’ Bills to re-establish Roman Catholic worship at the beginning of all such sessions in our public life, I would certainly not oppose it.
On this group of amendments, I will reiterate what I said earlier. I am confident that councils will make decisions on how they choose to vote or decide to include prayer in a way that suits their local circumstances. A council may well choose to adopt prayers on a majority, a two-thirds vote or an alternative proportion, or under a different procedure. Likewise, it may well decide that prayer should last no longer than three minutes, or it may decide alternative parameters. Such a matter is up to the council, so I say gently to the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) that it should be a local choice, built on an understanding of individual local communities and circumstances. I hope that he will therefore understand why I cannot support his amendments.
I have already made the point that the measures in the Bill should not be prescriptive, and I gladly make it again. This is permissive, enabling legislation, and choices and judgments should be made locally. That is particularly important with regard to amendments 5 to 7, which would require public bodies to undertake a referendum to decide whether to include religious observances at meetings. Although I agree with the thrust of the speech of the hon. Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), at a time when finance is scarce, I do not want to put new burdens on local authorities, and we certainly should not require them to incur additional financial cost. Referendums are expensive and, especially in these straitened financial times, councils would not want to commit to those costs.
I was agreeing with the hon. Gentleman. I am sorry: I know it is not normal, but Fridays are unusual, and we just have to ride with it.
Frankly, if we insisted on a referendum, unlike the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) I do not think that everybody would necessarily turn out to vote. If we enabled local councils seeking the power to hold prayers at meetings to hold referendums, I fear that the turnout would not justify the cost. To introduce referendums on the subject would provide a clear disincentive for councils to consider the inclusion of prayers at all. I therefore cannot support the amendments tabled by the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire. We need to provide local councils with the freedom to choose to hold prayers or reflections, without fettering that discretion or imposing new financial and administrative burdens on public bodies.
On the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), I am sure that it will not come as a surprise to him that, although he read out my favourite part of morning prayers, I cannot support any suggestion of making prayer compulsory. I would not support the amendment if he pressed it to a vote.
The Government have worked hard to get rid of burdens on local authorities and empower the public to hold local authorities to account, and we therefore believe that the amendments are unnecessary. However well intentioned, I am concerned that they could be a burden on local authorities and hence the taxpayer, and they could obstruct rather than enable the intention of the Bill, which is to allow local authorities to hold town hall prayers as part of official business if they wish. There is no need for an amendment to require a two-thirds majority to enable the local authority to hold town hall prayers. Such a measure would mean that a minority might vote against prayers but still stop the council holding them as part of official business, and a minority stopping a majority from taking part in an item of business that nobody is compelled to take part in is what the Bill intends to put to an end.
In addition to provisions on town hall prayers, the Bill will ensure that local authorities are able to support, facilitate, and be represented at events with a religious element. It is, sadly, not too much of a stretch to imagine that individuals or organisations with an axe to grind might also choose to attack the proper role that local authorities play, for example by organising a Remembrance Sunday event by closing a road. That should never happen, and the Bill will help to ensure that any such challenge will, quite rightly, be a non-starter.
An amendment to make the provision subject to a vote has the same possibility of a perverse outcome, with minority opinion resulting in the council being unable to exercise functions that it may already be exercising, as well as preventing it from taking part in activities that the majority wish to participate in. The Bill intentionally does not define what “prayer” or “observance” is, and the amendment that seeks to limit the time that the council may spend on an item of business—in this case, town hall prayers or an observance connected with religious or philosophical belief—to three minutes, is indeed odd. I presume it is to ensure that town hall prayers do not take up too much valuable time, but I question whether it is necessary. Protracted sermons may be a stock feature of some comedy novels featuring the clergy, but I question whether such an issue would arise in the council chamber, especially as that chamber is open to the scrutiny of the public who can film, tweet, blog or otherwise report the goings on of the local authority. We should trust local authorities and councillors to serve the interests of the public to whom they are accountable, without the need for a steer on how long they should take over this or that item of business.
Continuing the theme of scrutiny, trust and accountability, I am concerned about the amendment that would make any local authority decision in the Bill first subject to a local referendum. That seems unnecessary gold plating, and an unnecessary expense for the taxpayer. There are also technical issues to be considered, such as how the referendums would work with those local authorities exercising the general power of competence. The Bill is to enable smaller parish and town councils, and other local authorities such as single-purpose authorities, to hold town hall prayers as part of their business if they wish, but those local authorities are not mentioned in the amendments.
Amendment 12 is perhaps my greatest concern. The freedom not to hold town hall prayers is the choice of the local authority, and just as important as the freedom to hold them. Compelling a local authority to hold town hall prayers, or an observance connected with a religious or philosophical belief, is against the spirit of the Bill, and it would no longer be the gentle and inclusive measure that celebrates all faiths that is intended. I hope that the message is clear that we should trust our local councillors and the public with the measures in the Bill, and that the amendments will not be pressed.
I have several concerns about the group of amendments tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), but they have been helpful in enabling us to discuss and further explore the extent of the Bill. I have a particular concern about the proposal to limit prayers to three minutes. We have talked about the parliamentary Prayers with which we start every day here in Parliament. I glanced over my shoulder this morning just as we finished our prayers to see that they lasted three minutes and 40 seconds, so parliamentary Prayers would offend the proposed three-minute limit. I do not think that in religious observance of any kind there is room for a stopwatch.
I can think of several church services I have been to recently where I might have wanted to take the egg timer with me. I will come on to the comments made by my hon. Friend in a moment. I look forward in particular to supporting his Bill, following the next private Members’ Bill ballot, to reintroduce a full mass before every sitting of the House.
I came to this place in 2010. I, and colleagues, have had the privilege often of being in this Chamber when huge events of national importance were about to take place and we were about to consider and debate them. I think particularly of the riots, where Parliament was recalled, and the parliamentary votes on whether to take military action in Libya and in Syria. On each occasion when I attended Prayers, they extended beyond three minutes. The Speaker’s Chaplain the Rev. Rose, who is a wonderful and inspirational preacher, extended the prayers to discuss—they are held in private, but if I may just lift the veil briefly—the matters being considered later that day. I am sure colleagues of faith and of no faith enjoyed the extended opportunity to consider the very difficult decisions we faced, and enjoyed the style and eloquence with which the Speaker’s Chaplain conducted proceedings. If the three-minute rule were introduced in local authorities, where they have similar difficult decisions to make on issues of local importance—opening schools, closing schools or cancelling bus services—they would be hampered by the time limit.
I am also concerned about why it should be necessary for a council to have a two-thirds majority to have prayers. If we were to have a two-thirds majority for prayers, why should that not be the case for everything else? I am sure local people would feel that lots of important issues of day-to-day relevance should be decided by a two-thirds majority—moving from weekly to fortnightly bin collections, for example. Such issues have more relevance and impact on people’s lives than council prayers. The decision on whether a council is able to pray should be made by a simple majority. I will be resisting the amendments and hope that they will not be pressed to a Division.
The proposal to hold a referendum every four years is unnecessary and overly bureaucratic. It should be for councils to decide locally, in their town hall, what goes on. Everyone who opposes the decisions they make already has a vote in a referendum every four years: they can sack all of their councillors. I have known some very lazy councillors in my time—I will not name them—and I would encourage people to sack them at local elections.
If people oppose what is done, either in Parliament or in the council chamber, they now have many ways to communicate it. They can contact their representatives on Facebook and Twitter. They have even been known occasionally to send Members of Parliament e-mails—several hundred a day. They do not need a referendum if they are unhappy with decisions; they can vote out councillors every four years and, in between, have many, many ways of making contact and corresponding with them. I am grateful for the amendments that have been tabled. They have improved the debate today, but I do not think they are necessary and I hope they will be resisted.
The amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) is also valuable in enabling us to discuss the Bill’s provisions and how they would affect local people. I am an advocate of and a believer in localism. I do not think it is for Whitehall to dictate to councils how they should conduct their business; the town hall should be free to do so. We should not seek to mandate from this place or even move towards mandating from this place how local authorities conduct their business, especially in such a sensitive area as religious belief. The Bill is, as has been stated repeatedly, about freedom and about empowering and entrusting that freedom to our local authority councillors, the vast majority of whom, if not all, are excellent individuals who have sharp and keen minds capable of making the decision locally about how to conduct their business.
Finally, I promised to return to the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg). The idea of his private Member’s Bill for starting all proceedings in local authorities with a mass and incense might be an idea with legs, so I will watch with interest where he comes in the private Members’ ballot next year. I may be prepared to become a subscriber to his Bill, although I am not sure that I would support the abolition of the Church of England and the restoration of the Roman Catholic Church. There are, of course, Anglo-Catholics who are almost more Catholic than the Catholics in some of their tastes and traditions for their own Church, so this could be explored further on a future date.
With all those assurances, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire will be willing to withdraw his amendment and that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley will not press his.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I shall not detain the House for long. We have had a good debate today, and I have enjoyed it immensely. I am grateful for the contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and for Shipley (Philip Davies), my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), my hon. Friends the Members for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) and for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), the Minister and the shadow Minister.
Let me briefly put on the record my thanks to the Minister for her support of this Bill and my profound thanks to all the officials from her Department who have been excellent. Whenever I had a question to ask, they were happy to help and advise. They have been instrumental in ensuring the smooth passage of the Bill through the House. I thank the shadow Minister and Opposition Members for their support. It is clear that this Bill can unite parties and people across the House in support of providing freedom for people to pray.
It has been a great privilege for me to have the opportunity to bring forward a private Member’s Bill in an area that is of particular interest to me—religious freedom and faith. It is a great privilege to have this Bill now being read for the Third time. I have been contacted by churches and people of faith in my constituency, including imams and representatives from our local mosque. The Bill has not only been discussed here, but has been held in the prayers and religious observances of many people across Rossendale and Darwen. I am sure from the number of people who have written to me to wish us luck that many across our nation have been inspired by the Bill.
I said at the time of the money resolution that I believed—and I still believe—that there is more power in prayer than in the stroke of any Minister’s pen, than in the power of the Chair—and you were in the Chair at the time, Madam Deputy Speaker—or than in any Division of this House. I am extremely grateful to people all over the country, and more particularly in my constituency, who have held this Bill and its passage through Parliament in their prayers. I hope that they will continue to hold it in their prayers as it proceeds through the other place.
It is a privilege to rise again in support of this Bill. Let me express my thanks once again to the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) for taking it through the House with such confidence, style and aplomb.
Last week’s discussion in Committee indicated a breadth of support from all parts of the House, and I am pleased that the point was made—time and again—that this Bill fundamentally protects freedom of choice. I warmly congratulate the hon. Gentleman on seeking to preserve the balance in the Bill, and I applaud the gentleness of the language. The word “may” as proposed in clause 1 is crucial. It is not for us to determine whether prayers should be included; it is our role simply to enable those decisions to be taken at a local level and based on individual local circumstances.
As I have said, I come from a multi-faith community—one that celebrates diversity of religion and culture. Our gurdwaras, our mosques, our temples and our churches of all types and denominations are full on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Having served as a local councillor, I know it was our tradition to have chaplains of all faiths exercising their role in the council chamber. Prayer was used as a means of bringing people together and highlighting the common ground that is found in many, if not all, faiths.
The Bill does not make prayers compulsory. It is simply about giving councils and public bodies the right to include prayers if they so wish. It is right that these decisions are taken locally, that they take into account the range of traditions, cultures and views of communities and that councils are sensitive in exercising their discretion. Should they decide to incorporate prayers or reflections of whatever tradition, councils will be able to take decisions about the detail of arrangements to ensure that they are inclusive and that no one is left feeling excluded or alienated. We must trust that our councils are best placed to make decisions that accurately reflect the needs and wishes of their own communities.
I welcome the Bill, which delivers the same degree of choice for a wide array of public bodies listed under clause 2. I think it is a clever way of emphasising that all public bodies, of whatever stripe, have a role to play in supporting communities and promoting community cohesion, as well as encouraging faith and non-faith groups to engage with those public bodies and contribute to that cohesion. I thought that was really well done.
I support the hon. Gentleman, too, in his efforts to ensure that all types of local authorities are entitled to make a decision of their own and to contribute in the same way as larger bodies. I am grateful for the clarification he brought to underline the opportunity for local authorities to contribute to religious events. He illustrated clearly in Committee, and again today, that the Bill will protect traditions that we take for granted at the moment.
At its heart, the Bill is about maintaining the right balance, providing choice without prescribing measures; enabling prayers to be included, while also making it clear that this is a localised decision to be based on local circumstances. I believe the hon. Gentleman has got the balance absolutely right, and I am happy to support the progress of his Bill.
I rise to support the Third Reading of this Bill. As the House will be aware, the Bill received what I described in Committee as the equivalent of a bye in the first round of the FA cup in that there was no debate on Second Reading. There was a brief discussion about the Bill when the money resolution was passed. Apart from that and the Committee debate, today has been the first—and, indeed, the only—occasion on which the Bill has been discussed on the Floor of the House. Let me thank my parliamentary next-door neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), for introducing the Bill.
From time to time, we are faced with situations brought about as a result of an unexpected turn of events in the courts. Judges sometimes reach decisions that throw into question the whole basis on which we have previously conducted our affairs in this country. In 2010, earlier in the present Parliament, there was a court case involving Bideford town council, a member of which, with the support of the National Secular Society, objected to the holding of prayers at the beginning of council meetings. Prayers were included on the agenda as the first item, before apologies for absence. Although the council member tabled motions to end the practice, they were rejected, so—again, with the help of the National Secular Society—he took the council to court, where it was argued that the council had no power to hold prayers as part of its formal business. Everyone in the land had always assumed that councils did have that power.
It is testimony to the ability of my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen that he has managed to pilot the Bill to its current stage, with the result that it is now crystal clear that councils have the power to hold prayers as part of their proceedings. It also clear that councils can take part in and facilitate religious events. That is particularly relevant to remembrance, and specifically, in my own local authority in Bury, to the marking of Gallipoli day.
My hon. Friend is making a very good point about councils needing to be represented at remembrance events, but, speaking as one who does not have a belief in God, I wonder whether those events need involve God. I think it is very important for us to commemorate, honour and respect veterans and those who have died fighting for their country, and I have no objection to this part of the Bill, because I think that councils need to be represented at such events, but I find it regrettable that those events must necessarily involve something in which many people do not believe.
No one is suggesting that those who have no faith should not be equally able to commemorate events of the past in their own way, but we have a long-standing tradition in this country of commemorating them by attending a religious service. Of course, there is no reason why those who have no faith whatsoever cannot organise a separate event with no religious content. However, I think that most authorities hold religious services. Bury council has a long tradition of commemorating Gallipoli day, marking it with a special Sunday on which it holds a civic service every year. The centenary of Gallipoli will be commemorated this year, not just in Bury but across the country.
For all those reasons, I am pleased to be able to support the Bill. I am sure that it will be given a Third Reading, and I wish it a speedy passage in the other place.
I do not wish to delay the House, but I think it is worth our reminding ourselves why the Bill is necessary at all. It is necessary because in 2012 the High Court ruled, on the basis on a narrow interpretation of the Local Government Act 1972, that councils had no statutory power to hold prayers as part of official business. The Bill will give councils that statutory power, and gives them freedom to pray.
As has already been made clear, the Bill does not compel anyone to pray; nor does it define what constitutes prayer, or what constitutes religion. It does not contain an exclusive list of religions or a definition of what constitutes prayer, because it gives bodies and individuals freedom to determine those matters for themselves. It takes a workable approach, giving local authorities freedom to include in their business time for prayers or other religious observance, or observance connected with a religious or philosophical belief. It also enables them to support, facilitate and be represented at events with a religious element.
Throughout the Bill’s passage so far, I have had in mind an event in my constituency: our Remembrance day service in Portsmouth, which, as would be expected in Portsmouth, is a pretty spectacular event. Representatives of all the main faiths in the city give readings and say prayers, which are interspersed with secular poems and hymns. It is an amazing event, which gathers huge crowds. I think that it is much stronger for the participation of all the city’s faith groups, and I say that as one who did not swear on the Holy Book when I affirmed my allegiance to Her Majesty and took my seat, but made a secular affirmation. I recognise the important role that religion plays in civic life, and I think that my local branch of the Royal Navy chaplaincy would have been very concerned to hear the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot).
Faith can be a unifying force for good. Faith organisations are intertwined with our communities. Councils, and councillors, should be free to allow faith to play a part in their business should they wish it to do so. The Government support the Bill because it gives authorities freedom to pray if they wish. The choice will be a local one. It will be for councils, and for the public who elect their councillors, to decide whether meetings will begin with a prayer, a reflection, or neither. It will be for councils to determine the content of prayers, which may, for instance, reflect the faith composition of their local areas. We consider that the Bill performs a valuable function. It is right for an authority that makes the decision to say prayers as part of its formal business to be able to do so. We should trust local people to decide.
I commend this straightforward, sensible and proportionate Bill to the House, and I thank and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry).
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.