Public holidays, religion and the law

On Monday 21 July, a Westminster Hall debate considered the e-petition relating to making Eid and Diwali public holidays.  This e-petition is due to close on 8 August 2014, and at the time of the debate had attracted 122,991 signatures, the largest e-petition that has come to central Government since e-petitions began in August 2011 [1].  The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills issued the following response after the 10,000 signature threshold had been exceeded:

“The Government is grateful for this e-petition. We are very aware of the importance of these festivals which are widely celebrated in the UK. The Government is committed to bringing people together in strong, united communities. We encourage and support people to have shared aspirations, values and experiences. Festivals such as Eid and Diwali contribute to this objective.

We regret however that we cannot agree to create new bank or public holidays to mark these festivals. The Government regularly receives requests for additional bank and public holidays to celebrate a variety of occasions including religious festivals. However the current pattern is well established and accepted. Whilst we appreciate a new national holiday may benefit some communities and sectors, the cost to the economy remains considerable and any changes to the current arrangements would not take place without a full consultation.”

The pressures on the parliamentary timetable before the summer recess [2] required that, unusually, the debate was held in Westminster Hall on a Monday afternoon, for if scheduled otherwise the petition would have fallen and no debate would have taken place.  In another twist of fate, the time scheduled for the debate coincided with a debate in the Commons on Ukraine (Flight MH17) and Gaza, [HC Hansard 21 July 2014 Vol 584 Col 1149], and the photograph in the BBC report indicate a near total absence of parliamentarians or public.  Nevertheless, the circumstances and the content of the debate explore important aspects of religious holidays and the e-petition process itself.

Bank and Public holidays in the UK

Although the terms “bank holiday” and “public holiday” are used interchangeably, there are important legal differences.  Bank holidays are holidays when banks and many other businesses are closed for the day, whereas Public holidays (or “Common law holidays”) are those which have been observed through custom and practice.  The Banking and Financial Dealings Act 1971 provides the statutory basis for Bank Holidays.  Replacing the earlier Bank Holidays Act 1871, it is essentially a financial provision:

“to confer power to suspend financial and other dealings on bank holidays or other days, and to amend the law relating to bills of exchange and promissory notes with reference to the maturity of bills and notes and other matters affected by the closing of banks on Saturdays, and for purposes connected therewith”.

Schedule 1 to the Act names four statutory bank holidays for England, Wales and Northern Ireland [3], and each year, there are two further holidays by Royal proclamation under the provisions of the Act [4].  The only holidays which coincide with the feast day of a major Christian festival are the “common law” holidays on Christmas Day and Good Friday.  Although “Easter Monday” is clearly associated with the events of the preceding days, it is not celebrated as part of Holy Week and is a remnant of former post-Easter week of secular celebration which was reduced to one day in the 19th century.


In view of the earlier BIS response to the petition, it was quite clear that the government was unlikely to concede additional bank holidays for Eid and Diwali.  However, this could be accomplished within the existing legislation: whilst difficult to justify as “common law”/public holidays, holidays for Eid and Diwali could be proclaimed annually under the 1971 Act, a procedure that would take into account for the variability in the dates on which these festivals fall.

The comparability of UK leave entitlement with that in mainland Europe and elsewhere was well covered during the debate, although the costs and benefits of additional holidays bears further consideration.  The CEBR estimate that “the average bank holiday costs the [UK] economy £2.3 billion” is often quoted, although the associated Press Release describes these as “rough and ready calculations”, notes the Department of Culture Media and Sport estimate that the Royal Wedding last year cost the UK £1.2 billion or 0.08% of GDP, and states that “this [the number of bank holidays] is more a social than an economic judgement. Money is not the only thing and a healthy lifestyle needs time off to reflect and relax”. Indeed.

Concluding the debate for the government, Jenny Willott (Cardiff Central) (LD), an Assistant Government Whip, stated [21 July 2014  Vol 584 Col 376WH]

“The Government do not believe there should be a public holiday to mark these two particular occasions.  I know that will disappoint some people, but I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue today. It is important that we should be able to discuss it and put on the record the value of the huge diversity and wide range of different faith groups represented in our communities, and the massive contribution they all make to our local communities and to society as a whole.  I thank my hon. Friend for raising the matter today and for his continuing dedication to and support for the work of those communities”.

Whether or not

“people who have been listening to us are at least happy and satisfied that we have debated the matter at length and that all of us have put on the record our belief that the contribution made by faith communities in the UK is critical to the way our society functions”

is another matter.  Clearly not the “positive answer” (or even “positive response”) that Bob Blackman suggested the largest e-petition deserved.  Certainly, squeezing the debate into this odd spot before MPs leave on their 5-week break, raises questions about the rigid bureaucracy associated with the e-petition system. We await to see whether “this debate will be the beginning and not the end.”


[1] Public petitions that secure the backing of 100,000 signatures are eligible, though not certain, for debate in Parliament, and as from September 2012, those exceeding the threshold of 10,000 signatures trigger a written response form the government department responsible.

[2] 22 July to 1 September.

[3] Easter Monday; the last Monday in May; the last Monday in August; 26th December, unless it is a Sunday; and 27th December in a year in which 25th or 26th December is a Sunday.

[4] New Year’s Day, (as from 1974); and May Day Holiday, (as from 1978).

11 thoughts on “Public holidays, religion and the law

  1. Can you comment on how this interesting question relates to individual rights to take time off work for their personal religious holidays? There is provision for pupils to be absent from school which is particularly relevant given the tightening up on parents taking children away fro school for family holidays – cases reported in the press suggest that these provisions may not always be appreciated by parents who fall foul of firm school enforcement. With regard to employees generally the recent shift of approach in the ECHR might suggest that employees have a stronger claim now to time off for Divali and Eid.

  2. The Department of Education document School attendance: Departmental advice for maintained schools, academies, independent schools and local authorities states:

    “Religious observance: Schools must treat absence as authorised when it is due to religious observance. The day must be exclusively set apart for religious observance by the religious body to which the parents belong. Where necessary, schools should seek advice from the parents’ religious body about whether it has set the day apart for religious observance.”

    The document is dated November 2013, but indicates that it is due for revue this month.

    With regard to employment, Frank considered Mba v London Borough of Merton [2013] EWCA Civ 1562 in his post Never on Sunday in which he concluded that the case highlighted two issues:

    – in line with Eweida & Ors, the judgment appears to weaken the idea of a simple checklist test of “core beliefs”: just because other devout Christians are happy to work on Sundays does not mean that someone with a principled religious objection to Sunday working is to be regarded as a religious eccentric; and

    – a demand for “reasonable accommodation” has to be within reasonable limits.

  3. It’s an unsurprising result – even though Muslims get a lot of publicity, according to the 2011 census, they are still only around 5% of the total population. Even in Tower Hamlets, which was the area with the highest percentage of people who declared themselves to be Muslim, the percentage was only 34%. Adding a public holiday (which effectively forces nearly everyone to down tools) for a religious festival observed by only 5% of the population in total would seem to be a bit strange.

    The percentage of people stating that they have no religion is much greater – maybe I should start a petition to have World Humanist Day made a public holiday?

    However, despite not being Muslim, I do get two days off for Eid – and I’ve had late morning starts and no lunch breaks for Ramadan. This is because my firm’s employees are overwhelmingly Muslim, and it makes sense that working hours reflect that. So in an environment where non-Muslims are a tiny minority (like my firm), the way is certainly open for all employees to have their working hours changed to fit in with Muslim religious obligations.

    I don’t mind; I’ve lost weight – and nobody tried to part me from my coffee. 🙂

    • It’s good to know that common sense, courtesy and respect is alive and well: without having to resort to the heavy hand of the law. St Paul would approve I’m sure.

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