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Local Government (Religious etc. Observances) Bill

Volume 760: debated on Wednesday 25 March 2015

Third Reading


Moved by

My Lords, I take this opportunity to raise a couple of points which I took up with my noble friend Lord Cormack in Committee and to which I have not received the promised answers. Without going into all the questions that I put to him, the first was whether or not he had taken legal advice on the compatibility of the proposals in the Bill with the public sector equality duty. The answer to that is either yes or no. I also asked him, if he had taken legal advice on it, whether he would place a copy in the Library of the House.

The second question I put to him, which is equally important, was whether or not Section 111(1) of the Local Government Act already gave local authorities most of the powers that were purported to be given in new Section 138B, which is to be added to the statute book by the Bill. We always say that legislation should not duplicate Acts that are already on the statute book, and I asked my noble friend to say whether he checked this point. I would be most grateful if he could give me replies to both those questions.

My Lords, I was not able to be present at the previous discussions on this Bill but I support what the noble Lord has just said. A number of us who are secularists feel that our views have been somewhat bypassed. It is one thing to have prayers, but it is quite another thing to have prayers as part of an actual meeting. If I had been present when the earlier part of the Bill was discussed, I certainly would have made that point quite strongly. A number of us do not have any particular religious views and are secularist in outlook and so on. A situation in which prayers are regarded as part of a meeting is quite different from having something additional to it, in line with what people may wish to have. I very much regret that I missed the opportunity to make this kind of statement earlier in the discussion of the Bill.

My Lords, if I may gently say so, the noble Baroness had two opportunities: first, on Second Reading, and secondly in a fairly extensive Committee stage, where critical amendments were moved by the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, and by my noble friend Lord Avebury. Both graciously withdrew their amendments, but there was significant debate and the points the noble Baroness has made were discussed.

I will come to my noble friend in a moment, but in response to the noble Baroness, all I would say is that this is the most gentle and permissive of Bills. Her noble friend Lady Massey of Darwen allowed me to quote her in Committee when she said that, as a convinced humanist, she felt that there was no danger or threat in the Bill to anyone. It gives to local authorities and to other elected authorities the opportunity—if they wish—to decide, by a majority, to begin their meetings with prayers or silent contemplation. There is absolutely no compulsion on them to do it, nor is there any obligation that the prayers should be of a particular or specific faith or as to whether the reflections should be religious or secular. I honestly think that these points are met in this very permissive Bill.

In answer to my noble friend Lord Avebury, I would just say, first, that I am sorry if this did not reach him before. The Government took advice. The Bill was backed not only by the Government but by the Official Opposition, in the person of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, who spoke from the Dispatch Box twice in Committee and once on Second Reading. Advice was taken, consistent with the Bill, which judged that the Bill was in no way in conflict with the declaration of human rights.

In answer to my noble friend’s second question, which I did seek to answer earlier—clearly, without persuading him—following the High Court ruling in 2012 there was a degree of ambiguity. The right honourable Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State, invoked the appropriate provisions of the Localism Act to give freedom, which they had thought that they had, to larger parish councils and other elected local authorities. But other authorities were not covered—the majority of parish councils, single-purpose authorities, et cetera—so it was thought appropriate to introduce a Bill that would put beyond any doubt the freedom, if they so choose, to begin their meetings and to participate in such annual services as the act of remembrance.

I would be in conflict with the rules of your Lordships’ House if I sought to make a longer speech. I would just like to thank Mr Jake Berry, who took this Bill through another place with great skill; my noble friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, who spoke very persuasively and movingly from the Front Bench; and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and others who have taken part in these debates.

Bill passed.