Yet another Westminster Hall debate on a measure the government is unlikely to progress
On Monday 29th October at 5:30pm, there was a debate in Westminster Hall on two e-petitions which called for religious festivals such as Diwali and Eid to be public holidays. The topic “religious holidays” is a frequent search term on L&RUK, and this post serves as an update of the information and comments we posted in Public holidays, religion and the law. With regard to the petitions, however, further progress always seemed improbable, given the government response to each.
The Westminster Hall debate considered e-petitions #220501 and #221860 concerning the holding of public holidays on religious occasions. In more detail, these petitions were:
- 221860: Public Holiday on Hindus special two religious occasions in a year: Diwali & Dussera; and
- 220501: Public Holiday on Muslims religious occasions in the UK(Eid ul Fitr & Eid ul Adha)
They had attracted 11,795 and 46,558 signatures respectively (at the time of writing, 30th October); on reaching 10,000, the government made separate, but almost identical responses:
“The Government has no plans to create a public holiday to commemorate religious festivals such as [Diwali/Eid]. The costs are considerable. The cost of the 2012 Diamond Jubilee holiday was around £1.2bn.
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 [Diwali and Dussehra/Eid] contribute towards this objective. We regret however that we cannot agree to create new bank or public holiday 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 an additional bank holiday may benefit some communities and sectors, the cost to the economy of an additional bank holiday remains considerable. The most recent estimate following an impact assessment for the additional holiday for the Diamond Jubilee is that a bank holiday (across the UK as a whole) costs employers around £1.2bn.
Workers in the UK are entitled to 28 days holiday each year. Employers are under no legal obligation to grant a religious-based request for time off. However Government’s policy is to encourage employers to respond flexibly and sympathetically to any requests for leave, including requests for religious holidays, bearing in mind business needs. ACAS provides detailed guidance for employers about religious festivals and holy days on its website.
Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy”
On 19 October, the Petitions Committee sought further views via the House of Commons Facebook page in advance of the Westminster Hall debate.
The current requests for additional religious holidays follow a similar pattern to that of e-petition #53523 submitted during the 2010–2015 Conservative – Liberal Democrat coalition government, covered in our post Public holidays, religion and the law in July 2014. This joint Diwali/Eid petition had attracted 122,991 signatures at the time of the debate, which then was the largest e-petition that had come to central Government since e-petitions began in August 2011. (Since 2014 there have been 14 e-petitions in excess of this number).
However, at ~58,000, the total number of signatures for petition #220501 and #221860 was substantially fewer than the threshold normally applied in the triggering Westminster Hall debate. Addressing this point, Martyn Day (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (SNP) gave a not altogether convincing explanation:
“the more numerate among us may have spotted that today’s petitions have fewer than 100,000 signatures, the threshold normally required for the Petitions Committee to schedule a debate. There are a number of factors for that, not least the absence of any petition over that threshold. When combined, these were among the next largest petitions, representing issues that primarily affect minority groups who may find it difficult to attract 100,000 signatures. The subject has not had a parliamentary debate since 2014 and is without doubt of interest to a significant number of people in the wider public.”
[Note: exceeding the 100,000 signature threshold does not guarantee a debate; e-petition #2233013 which advocated a bank holiday in 2018 “if England win the world cup” was not debated; this had been largest petition to date with 237,270 signatures in just over two weeks].
The Westminster Hall Debate
Opening the debate, Martyn Day (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (SNP) thanked Committee staff in the digital outreach team for their assistance with the consultation work that was conducted in advance of the debate. He also noted the National Council of Hindu Temples UK, the Hindu Council UK, the National Secular Society and over 1,000 individual petitioners, most of whom are Muslim, who responded to the process. These bodies and individuals provided “valuable insights into the subject of public holidays and time off for religious occasions”.
Agreeing with Government’s comments on the encouragement of greater engagement with communities, he stated
“87% of respondents to our consultation said that they felt that not allowing time off for religious occasions was discriminatory, while 84% felt that they could not ask for time off work or education for a religious occasion, so there are clearly underlying issues that need to be addressed.
Concern has also been raised by the National Secular Society, which commented:
“A likely result of increasing the number of public holidays by including Muslim, Hindu, or other religious festivals would therefore be a decrease in the number of discretionary holidays workers can take. Compelling those who do not celebrate minority faith festivals to take time off work risks causing unnecessary resentment and would harm efforts to promote a concept of common citizenship.”
The debate raised a number of issues: When are the festivals on which petitioners are requesting public holidays, and why are they important?; Why do we have the public holidays that we have?; How do we compare with other countries?; How do we best achieve social cohesion across our multicultural societies?; and how do we satisfy the legitimate concerns of the petitioners?
On the social cohesion issue, Martyn Day said that the situation was summed up well by the National Secular Society:
“The UK’s religious landscape is in a state of continuous change. Our population is more irreligious, yet more religiously diverse, than ever before. A multi-faith approach to holidays can therefore never serve the individual needs of the many different people who make up the UK, or adequately keep abreast with the changes in the UK’s demographics. A more practical and equitable approach is to give workers greater flexibility, where their work allows, to take holidays on the specific days that matter to them.”
He considered that this to be “a pragmatic suggestion, which is perhaps let down only by the apparent lack of awareness in society as a whole, and among employers in particular, of the significance of religious occasions…That lack of awareness featured repeatedly in the comments by petitioners, who made the point powerfully”.
Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op) found it is difficult to believe the oft-quoted figure that the diamond jubilee bank holiday cost employers around £1.2 billion, suspecting that it is “about as robust a statistic as one from the Vote Leave campaign during the Brexit referendum”. Less cynically, he briefly mentioned an initiative from the United States
“where the most progressive employers have introduced paid personal days for staff members to enable them to observe religious occasions or to use them for other personal reasons. They are not written into law as such, but they are a concept widely recognised by employers. Perhaps with tax incentives to assist, even the most recalcitrant of employers’ organisations might be willing to recognise that that could be a route, initially, to help employers to adjust to their employees being able to take time off to, perfectly reasonably, celebrate those two hugely important sets of public holidays in the Hindu community and the Islamic calendar”.
The problem with this approach, however, would be whether “progressive employers” in the UK would be amenable to such a scheme. From examples cited during the debate,
Responding to the debate, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Kelly Tolhurst) re-iterated the underlying legal provisions [emphasis added]:
“the current pattern of bank holidays is well established. There are eight permanent bank and public holidays in England and Wales. Scotland has nine and Northern Ireland has 10. The Banking and Financial Dealings Act 1971 allows for dates to be changed or other holidays to be declared. This allows for holidays to be declared to celebrate special occasions or one-off events…
“Although bank holidays have become widely observed, workers do not have a legal right to take time off for specific bank holidays or to receive extra pay for them; that depends on the terms of their employment agreement and contract. In the UK, full-time workers receive a minimum annual leave entitlement of 28 days. That is a combination of eight days to represent bank holidays and the EU minimum annual leave of 20 days. The extra eight days of leave do not need to be taken on bank holidays themselves, giving workers flexibility. Many employers offer extra leave entitlement on top of the statutory minimum.
Concluding the debate, Martyn Day, noting the idea of paid personal days and the approach of Brent Council to avoiding meetings on religious holidays, said:
“There can be no doubt that the percentage of our society’s population that is of other faiths is increasing, so perhaps, as the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) suggested, there needs to be threshold for such holidays at a future point. There is certainly much work that we need to do between now and then.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made some very good points about education and the need to work with employers, and that is definitely a way forward. I am encouraged by some of the Minister’s comments regarding the new duty on employers and the work being done to tackle workplace barriers, and we need to ensure that that information is relayed to all employers out there.