Meeting at the Theatr y Stiwt, Wrexham, the Petitions Committee of the National Assembly for Wales found itself examining a petition on prayers at Council meetings.
Russell George, Conservative AM for Montgomeryshire, explained that the petition was a consequence of National Secular Society & Anor, R (on the application of) v Bideford Town Council  EWHC 175 (Admin) (10 February 2012). The law in England had been changed to facilitate prayers at council meetings. Some of his constituents had written to the Minister for Local Government and Communities on the issue and had been told that there was no need to change the law in Wales and that there was still “a legal way” for councils to have prayers in council meetings – presumably relying on the proposition that local councils can hold prayers under the terms of s 111 of the Local Government Act 1972.
But, said George, others have their doubts, not least Jim Stewart, of the Evangelical Alliance Wales, who had analysed the current situation. Of the 22 councils in Wales at the time of the Bideford judgment, the practice was as follows:
- five indicated that they had some arrangements for prayer but not as part of formal meetings;
- five had no stated arrangements for prayer either before or as part of formal meetings; and
- twelve were holding prayers as part of the agenda of formal meetings
Subsequently, each of the twelve councils that had been holding prayers as part of formal meetings removed them from their formal agendas in order to comply with the judgment:
“There were previously twelve councils across Wales that had prayers in council meetings, but they have all now taken them off the agenda. [Jim Stewart’s] evidence … shows how those councils have taken legal advice. So, in many ways, it contradicts the content of the Minister’s reply to some of my constituents, which states that that is the case. We always write to the Minister first, so I think that we should write to the Minister for Local Government and Communities to seek his views on the petition. However, I would like us to include Jim Stewart’s evidence and ask the Minister to comment specifically on his research. I am also keen that the committee should take some legal advice on this issue, because there is obviously a contradiction between what the evidence is saying and what I suspect the Minister, although he has not told us it yet, might tell us when he writes back to us”.
It will be interesting to see the Minister’s reply – always assuming that the Committee makes it available on the Internet.