It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Turner, and may I take this early opportunity to wish you, and everyone else here today, a very Happy New Year.
I rise in support of the Bill before us today.
This Bill brings redress to the ruling which followed the case brought against Bideford Town Council just five years ago, and I am glad that it has broad support from across the House. I am grateful to the Hon Member for Rossendale and Darwen for sponsoring its passage through the House.
It is important that all councils, and indeed the wide variety of public representative bodies listed in this Bill, are at liberty to include prayers as part of their meetings if they so wish. In the wake of the High Court decision in 2012 and the changes subsequently made under section 1 of the Localism Act, this Bill brings clarification and ensures that decisions can be taken in different types of authorities with confidence and fairness.
As Hon Members might remember, I have twice drawn attention in the House to the comments of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, following the launch of the challenge in Bideford back in 2010. Their message was one of regret that the situation should ever have got as far as a legal challenge in the first place – one would have hoped a compromise could have been reached long before it got to that. I could not agree more.
Let me be absolutely clear that these matters should be dealt with through a local settlement which takes into account the needs and circumstances of individual local communities. We need to give support and assurance to that process, and that is what this Bill does.
Most importantly, the Bill does not seek to provide guidance to councils and authorities. It is enabling; it is not prescriptive. Religious observances are above all a matter where local and individual choice should prevail, and we should support that though making clear the freedom of choice, not just across top-tier Local Authorities, but in town and parish councils and across a range of other public bodies too.
Mr Turner, to build cohesive, inclusive and sensitive communities, we need to strengthen the ties between local communities and the authorities which seek to represent them.
We need to be mindful of the needs of all faith communities, and non-faith communities, when determining whether to hold prayers and what the nature of those prayers should be. I am sure that this will be done not only by all local authorities but also by the other bodies specified in Clause 2 of this Bill, to which this legislation would apply, which, as Hon Members will know, ranges from fire and rescue authorities to transport bodies and economic boards.
I welcome the principle behind this, that each of these authorities have the opportunity to contribute to wider community cohesion. This is not the remit of one section of the community – be it faith groups, non-faith groups, voluntary organisations, or local businesses – but the role of each and every part of the community, not least local authority bodies.
At the same time, we must of course ensure that these authorities maintain their inclusivity and respect the freedoms and differences of all members, religious or otherwise. I take very seriously the points made by the National Secular Society, in particular their warnings that “prayers can create a feeling of exclusion” and that imposing prayers can alienate members who do not feel part of one or another tradition or faith.
When the Minister is on his feet, I would be grateful if he could inform the Committee what representations he may have received regarding the Bill, from external organisations and interests, and in particular, the National Secular Society. Can I ask the Minister, what assessment he has made of their fears that that this Bill could exclude and alienate some council members?
Does the Minister believe it will compel anyone who doesn’t wish to participate in prayer to do so? Does he believe that there need be further safeguards in this legislation to ensure that is not the case? I have to say that, given the comments from the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, I am minded to believe the balance is right – giving power to determine this issue at a local level.
I am sure the Minister would not support a Bill where compulsion for prayers is a possibility, and I would certainly hope that where decisions were taken locally to have prayers as part of the meeting, it would be on an opt-in, opt-out basis.
It is absolutely crucial that the localised decisions made on religious observances are exercised on the basis of inclusivity, and that every effort is made to avoid exclusion. Any new powers must be used sensitively, with discretion and following a process that involves and responds to the needs of all local communities.
Mr Turner, I am supporting the Bill today because this Bill is not prescriptive and it does not seek to impose prayers. It merely clarifies a freedom to choose to include prayer or not to and seeks to redress the perverse position which followed the 2012 ruling, where that choice was removed.