On Wednesday 25 March, the Local Government (Religious etc. Observances) Bill completed its third reading in the House of Lords, and now awaits Royal Assent. Lord Cormack moved that the “Bill do now pass”, and in the following short debate clarified questions raised by Lord Avebury (LD) and Baroness Turner of Camden (Lab), Lords Hansard 25 Mar 2015 Vol 760(125) Col 1424.
Responding to Baroness Turner’s statement “a number of us who are secularists feel that our views have been somewhat bypassed” and issues relating to the Bill permitting prayers as part of a meeting, Lord Cormack pointed out:
” 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,”
“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.”
With regard to the question asked by Lord Avebury on whether there had been legal advice on the compatibility of the proposals in the Bill with the public sector equality duty, he confirmed:
“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.”
On whether new Section 138B within the Bill duplicated existing local authority powers in section 111(1) Local Government Act, Lord Cormack repeated an earlier answer to Lord Avebury that:
“following the High Court ruling in 2012 [National Secular Society & Anor, R (on the application of) v Bideford Town Council  EWHC 175 (Admin) (10 February 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.”
Noting that he would be in conflict with the rules of their Lordships’ House if he sought to make a longer speech, Lord Cormack thanked Mr Jake Berry, who took the Bill through the Commons, and Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, Lord Kennedy and others who have taken part in the debates in the Upper House.
Reflecting its origins in the action taken by the late Mr Clive Bone to end the saying of prayers at meetings of the Bideford Town Council, the Bill is generally referred to as the “Council Prayers Bill”. However, as the name might suggest, the Local Government (Religious etc. Observances) Act 2015 will have impact on activities far wider that “council prayers”; the resulting amendments to the Local Government Act 1972 include:
- business at a meeting of a local authority in England may include time for prayers or other religious observance or observance connected with a religious or philosophical belief;
- the terms “local authority” is given an extended meaning to include a wide range of public bodies defined in new section 138C of the 1972 Act;
- certain public bodies, subject (in some cases) to certain limitations, are to be treated as a local authority;
- it is applicable to meetings of a committee of a local authority in England, a joint committee of two or more such authorities, or a sub-committee of such a committee or joint committee;
- a local authority in England may support or facilitate, or make arrangements to be represented at, a religious event, an event with a religious element, an event connected with a religious or philosophical belief or an event with an element connected with such a belief;
But was the initial action taken by the NSS really an example of “be very careful what you wish for”? The immediate result of the Bideford prayers ruling was to require all local authorities to question inclusion of, and rationale for prayers within the agendas of their meetings. Although during its passage through parliament attempts were made to qualify the conditions under which prayers and religious observances &c might take place and the decisions taken to permit this to occur, new sections 138A and B are entirely permissive and unqualified: business may include time for prayers &c; a local authority may support or facilitate, or make arrangements to be represented at religious events and events connected with a religious or philosophical belief.
We suspect that in practice relatively little will change as a consequence of the new Act, but equally, future legal action along the lines of Bideford seems unlikely.