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Judy Mallaber: My hon. Friend referred to allowing sixth-form pupils to make a decision. I am pleased that, when I was young—if I can remember that far back in
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my own life—I went to bible class and Sunday school. I am concerned that children of atheist parents often get no religious education at all, when they should get a broad religious education. I was confirmed in the Church of England at the age of 15. Does my hon. Friend not think that, as I was able to take a decision of that kind at that age, and consequently to decide whether I wished to stay with that faith, I should have been allowed to decide whether to engage in religious worship at school, too?

Jim Knight: I will address my hon. Friend’s important point when I talk about the issue of competence, which is right at the heart of this debate.

We believe that there is a clear distinction to be made between a broad and balanced religious education, taught in our schools, and worship. As the Secretary of State said earlier this year, all the faith communities have agreed to ensure that pupils are taught about all faiths in their schools. The days when religious education was synonymous with religious instruction are long gone. Indeed, learning about other faiths is increasingly important to ensure the community cohesion that we discussed earlier. I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) said on that point.

As for withdrawal from RE, we expect schools to teach the subject in a manner that is compatible with pupils’ human rights. Indeed, maintained schools are obliged to do so as public authorities under the Human Rights Act 1998, although it would be for the courts to decide whether human rights have been breached on the facts of a particular case. If RE is taught appropriately and parents can withdraw their children, It is unlikely that pupils’ right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion will be breached. The distinction between collective worship and RE centres on the notion that teaching covers all religions so that sixth-form pupils are not taught religious instruction.

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Dr. Evan Harris: Why do we need a parental opt-out if religious education is taught in a balanced and responsible way, and teaching is based on all religions as well as none—that is, atheism and humanism?

Jim Knight: To some extent, the opt-out was left over from the days of religious instruction, but I support it none the less. The national curriculum does not set out what should be taught in RE, as there is flexibility according to the school’s foundation. It is appropriate to allow parents to exercise that right if they choose to do so.

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): The Minister has not responded to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), so will he confirm that a good RE syllabus that assists with social integration and covers a range of options should specifically include humanist and secular beliefs? The great Liberal MP, Charles Bradlaugh, changed the law in the late 19th century so that he could enter Parliament without swearing an oath on the Bible. That is a hard-won right, which surely should be present in RE syllabuses, too.

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Jim Knight: It is important that children learn about all beliefs as well as non-religious beliefs in RE. I am not blessed with faith, and I firmly believe that, given that many of us do not have any religious belief, our views should be understood and valued equally with faith-based beliefs.

Jeremy Corbyn: I thank the Minister for his earlier comments, but is he confident that the general consensus in the House that there should be education in both faith and non-faith is being implemented in schools across the country? I visit faith schools that often teach comparative religion brilliantly, but other schools do not teach it so well. Does he have a method to monitor such teaching?

Jim Knight: In our earlier debate on Ofsted inspections and community cohesion, the Secretary of State referred to the long-standing inspection of teaching to develop pupils’ spiritual well-being. That is something that we inspect, and I am confident that we manage to deliver it. Obviously, different schools emphasise different aspects of such teaching, but my own children, who have attended faith schools, have learned about different faiths. My family does not live in a multi-faith community but, nevertheless, those Anglican schools ensured that pupils are aware of the views of other faiths and, I think, non-religious faiths.

Turning to the issue of competence, we must strike a balance between the competence of young people to make decisions for themselves on issues of conscience and the smooth running of the school. We believe that we have struck the right balance. In the school context, it is justified and proportionate to interfere with the child’s rights in the interests of maintaining order and the smooth running of the school. The Bill states that the Government

That statement informs our view. My noble Friend Lord Adonis said in the other place on 17 October:

who was cited by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris)—

It is a burden on schools to make a decision on competence. We base competence on age in many other settings—for example, the age of consent and the age at which someone can drive—so we believe that that it is simplest to provide that once someone enters the sixth form, they achieve competence.

Dr. Evan Harris: I do not think that the age of consent is the correct human rights comparison. Human rights measures allow states to impose an age of consent for sexual activity to protect vulnerable people. Everything that the Minister said about the difficulty of assessing competence should apply to
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arguably more important issues such as the giving of contraception advice and abortions. Why is there no age cut-off for those matters?

Jim Knight: Clearly, that is not my area of competence. However, such work takes place with individuals, whereas we are asking schools to make decisions about a cohort in assessing the competence of all their pupils and whether or not they should offer them the right. The proposal is not workable. We would certainly have to undertake a significant consultation of schools and the work force to see whether they agreed with the hon. Gentleman or me, and whether a test of competence was workable. I therefore urge the House to reject the hon. Gentleman’s proposal and to accept Lords amendment No. 46.

Sarah Teather: I am conscious of the irony that this is the third of four groups of amendments to be dominated by the issue of religion. I do not recall much discussion of the subject in our earlier proceedings—I am not sure whether that reflects the rich spiritual heritage of the Lords or the godless nature of the Commons—but God certainly seems to be omnipresent today.

I welcome Lords amendment No. 46, which was tabled by the Government in response to arguments made by my noble Friend Baroness Walmsley in Committee in the Lords. In a powerful argument, my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) made it clear that the pre-existing inability of older students to excuse themselves from collective worship and religious instruction is incompatible with their right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion in article 9 of the European convention on human rights. The right for pupils to be excused from religious education and attendance at common worship lies with the parent, but article 9 makes it clear that pupils should enjoy their own rights.

In the Lords, we tabled an amendment to that effect, setting the limit at 16, which is widely recognised asthe legal age of maturity. In their response, the Government said that they would table an amendment under which the limit would be when pupils entered the sixth form. That is not the legal point that we were trying to make but, nevertheless, we welcome it as a pragmatic solution. I think that the Government knew that they were bang to rights, so they caved in, and did not listen to our persuasive arguments as much as we would like. As my hon. Friend my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon said, the Joint Committee on Human Rights stated thatthe Government response would significantly reduce the chances of a legal challenge, but would not remove it completely. We are sympathetic to his arguments, but the Government response is a welcome first step in meeting our concerns.

My hon. Friend asked whether arguments about pragmatism should apply, given that an age limit is not set for consultations between a young person and their doctor or health adviser. I agree with the Minister that such issues are generally dealt with one to one, and do not involve the management of relationships between groups and organisations. We understand that thereare pragmatic considerations, but I should like the Government to see the proposal as a first step and to review it as the arrangements bed down.

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Jim Knight: I am happy enough to keep it under review, along with a number of other issues. This case, however, differs from that of medical treatment, as individuals would effectively exclude themselves from lessons. That would create an “order issue” for schools, which would have to decide what provision to make for such individuals. It could have an impact on a whole cohort, not just an individual.

Sarah Teather: There are two separate issues, one of which is collective worship. A pragmatic consideration for schools is that they may have to arrange collective worship separately from different assemblies, and it will take time for them to organise that. The second issue is religious education. My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon made this point very well: I do not think that I could have made it better. We believe—as do many other Members on both sides of the House—that religious education should include education in all faiths and none, to ensure that it is at the heart of our dealings with social cohesion and social integration.

The Secretary of State said at the outset that the new amendments were part of an ongoing dialogue with the faith community and faith schools. I ask the Minister to ensure that this issue, perhaps above all others, is at the heart of those dealings with faith schools. If we ensure that religious education really is multi-faith, really does broaden young people’s minds and really is an aid to social cohesion, we shall avoid the controversy about opt-outs from lessons and the difficulties with order that the Minister mentioned, and we will need no more debates such as this. Debate will be confined to such issues as common worship and assembly, which are easier to deal with.

Dr. Harris: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her helpful and constructive approach to the issue. Does she agree that if this is indeed part of an ongoing process, the Minister should take the step to which he referred, and consult on how he could go further? That could include asking young people about their own views—a move that the Liberal Democrats have been suggesting for a long time.

Schools already have to make separate arrangements for children whose parents withdraw them from collective worship. The amendment might increase the number, but perhaps schools should do what we do in the House, where prayers take place at the beginning of sittings. Those of us who are not religious can then turn up a little later, although it is not so easy for us to book a seat.

Sarah Teather: I will not get involved in the issue of booking seats in the House, which is far more controversial than religion. However, I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention, especially as it leads me to my final point.

I welcome the Government’s provisions in Lords amendments Nos. 54 and 65. The Liberal Democrats have said for a long time that consultation of young people must be the same as consultation of all other users of public services: all must have an opportunity to present their views, not just a chosen few who may well say what a school or another service provider wishes to hear.

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Lords amendment No. 46 is a welcome first step, but I hope that it represents the beginning of further work by the Government.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): As we have all heard, Lords amendment No. 46 gives sixth formers the right to opt out of collective worship. At present, only parents can withdraw their children from collective worship and religious education.

We have had a wide-ranging and interesting debate in which a variety of views have been expressed. I agree with the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) that the Government were forced into accepting the argument that to leave the law unchanged would be incompatible with the legal framework established under human rights legislation. The Joint Committee on Human Rights, which has been mentioned a number of times in the debate, certainly suggested that.

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We should put the issue in the specific context of the Education Act 1944 and the Education Reform Act 1988. I do not think that the Minister has been entirely accurate—I will not say “open”—about the application of the existing law and the way in which this proposal affects it. The Bill does not alter schools’ obligation, established in the 1944 Act and supported by the 1988 Act, to provide a daily act of worship of a mainly or broadly Christian character. I happen to think that that is right, but—as has been pointed out by Members on both sides of the House—any good school will apply it with sensitivity. Any good school should teach comparative religion, and any good school should take account of the people whom it serves and the community in which it is situated.

Those sensitivities, and that lateral approach, should of course obtain in schools throughout the country. The Minister spoke about his area, which is not a multi-faith area and I could speak of mine, which is a rather similar rural area with what could be described as a largely monocultural character. As the Minister suggested, however, even in areas of that kind children should have a taste of the rich diet represented by a variety of cultural understandings and an appreciation of different religions.

Jeremy Corbyn rose—

Mr. Hayes: The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) made the same point. Paraphrasing Coleridge, he said that religion, true or false, was the centre of gravity of a society and schools should pay proper regard to children’s understanding of it. He now wishes to intervene, perhaps to add another poetic reference to the one he has already offered.

Jeremy Corbyn: Coleridge derived his inspiration from walking around my part of north London.

Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): And from opium.

Jeremy Corbyn: And some other substances as well, I understand.

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Surely there is a difference between a compulsorily available act of collective Christian worship every day in a school and access to a broad range of religious opinion. My constituency is totally multi-faith and multicultural in every conceivable way. In some schools there are as many Muslim as there are Christian children, or children whose parents have no faith at all. I do not think that the compulsory collective act is necessarily what we are seeking. What we want to do is bring societies and communities together through firm teaching of all religious faiths, so that there is a better understanding of them all.

Mr. Hayes: The hon. Gentleman is right: those two things are different. The important point to understand, however, is that the Bill does not change schools’ obligation to provide both religious education and a daily act of worship. The hon. Gentleman’s argument is, in a sense, with the legislation and the Government rather than with me.

While I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the two things are different, it seems to me entirely proper for them to sit side by side in a good school. The amendments make a number of proposals about who can opt out of those obligations. As the hon. Gentleman will know, at present parental consent is required for any child to opt out—which, again, is entirely appropriate. The amendments suggest that that should not apply to children over 16, which would bring the Bill more closely into line with human rights legislation, although, as the hon. Member for Brent, East said, it would not necessarily do the job completely. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) wants to go further, and allow a wider range of children to exercise judgment if they are deemed competent to do so.

Dr. Harris: When the hon. Gentleman’s party reaffirmed the compulsory act of worship in statute in 1988, the Labour party—led by its then education spokesman, the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith)—and the Liberal Democrats voted against it, because we did not think it right. Worship should be optional, yes, but not compulsory. I see that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) has not changed his view, and I hope that the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) has not changed his. It appears that other Government Members have since changed their view, but I think developments in society suggest that we should move away from compulsion in religious matters as much as possible where young people are concerned.

Mr. Hayes: One might want to consider changing the law in respect of whether the act of worship shouldbe mainly or broadly Christian. There is a separate argument about whether there should be compulsory religious education.

Dr. Harris: Compulsory worship.

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