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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 5 December 2007

[Hywel Williams in the Chair]


Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned—[Mr. Watts.]

9.30 am

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to bring this important and timely debate before the House. First, let me say that this debate is not about “doing God”, calling for a theocracy, Bible-bashing, proselytising or criticising other faiths, or advocating on behalf of a non-existent UK religious right. Indeed, I hope that this debate will move outside the strictures of party politics. It is also not a debate on religion. It is not about championing a particular brand or denomination within the Christian tradition, as over the next few minutes I will set out that Christianophobia is impacting on all denominations, and even offending people of no faith.

This debate is about the relentless assault, mostly by stealth, on this nation’s much-loved Christian heritage and traditions. It is about how anti-Christian sentiment is increasing, not decreasing; why many Christians feel they are not getting a fair hearing when it comes to Christianity in the public square; and what many people of all faiths and no faith see as the increasing marginalisation of Britain’s Christian history, heritage and traditions through the actions of Whitehall Departments, Government agencies, local authorities, the charity commissioners, or other sectors of society. I will also comment on the creative industries and some sections of the media.

Since I secured the debate, I have received hundreds of e-mails underscoring the concern of Christians, who, although they should be equally protected under existing anti-discrimination legislation, are left feeling increasingly overlooked and ignored. Sidelining the views of so many people—seven out of 10 people in the 2001 national census identified themselves as Christian—if the matter is left unresolved, could lead to unhelpful and avoidable social fragmentation, rather than unity. It is important for the Government and public agencies to recognise, acknowledge, and be reminded of the roots of Christianity in this nation—roots which, as many of us know, were first evident in the 1st century. Whether pre or post-Reformation, the place and role of the Christian faith has for the best part, but by no means always, been of real benefit to this nation and communities around this nation. That is seen in the imported music of Handel and the three counties music of Elgar, the literature of Bede and Cuthbert, the modern science of Polkinghorne, the fine works of religious art that fill our public galleries up and down the land, and the architecture of the cathedrals of Hereford, Canterbury and—if the Minister will forgive me—Gloucester.

Britain’s Christian traditions are both rich and deep, and are enjoyed today by people from all faiths and none. Furthermore, this Christian tradition has held Britain’s communities together for many hundreds of
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years and through the very many challenges of British history. The most recent English church census reveals that at least 3.2 million people still attend church every Sunday. The Christian Church is not dead: it is very much alive. Perhaps that is an important oversight that some have mistakenly made.

In education, there should be no discrimination against Christians who want to provide home schooling. There should be no discrimination against faith groups that wish to set up new schools and/or expand their existing schools network. People of all faiths and none queue to send their children to such schools—schools with a Christian ethos. Do not take my word for it: look at the evidence. More widely, state schools have a legal and educational duty to ensure that pupils are taught about Britain’s Christian traditions, at least for educational, if not for spiritual, purposes.

A recent survey in The Sunday Telegraph revealed that fewer and fewer schools are staging traditional Christmas nativity plays, supposedly through fear of offending people of other faiths and those with no faith. But what about the offence to Christians? And whatever happened to allowing children to explore? I would like to put on record, Mr Williams, that I have never met a single Muslim, Jew, Sikh or Buddhist, or person of any other faith, who has told me that they object to Christians celebrating Christmas. That they do object is a false, secular-driven proposition, and a divisive one. Indeed, the Muslim Council of Britain said:

Yesterday I received an e-mail from a Jewish gentleman in Beirut, who told me of nativity plays performed in schools there. If it is good enough for Lebanon, it is good enough for London.

It is also wrong when Christianophobia occurs on university campuses, when Christian groups try to access local government grants and funding or seek to rent public buildings, and in decisions relating to adoption and fostering services. Local, regional or national fundholders and decision makers who are Christianophobic need to stop breaking the spirit of anti-discrimination laws and look beyond Christian labels to see the wider benefits that hundreds of faith groups bring to local communities up and down the nation. In the majority of Britain’s villages, towns and cities, religious faith remains a force for good.

I hope that the Minister will consider amending existing legislation to ensure that anti-Semitic and Christianophobic crimes are recorded and prosecuted by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. He knows that I have tabled many questions relating to anti-Semitic crime, and the Government have said that they are currently researching the whole issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate has also tabled questions relating to hate crimes against Christians and against the Jewish faith.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): My hon. Friend is bringing an important issue before Westminster Hall. When local authorities intervene to change the names of ceremonies or to suggest that parts of the Christian ceremonial tradition be removed, does he think that that is animated by dislike of Christianity, or is it just a mistaken notion of what is required to comply with the existing regulations?

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Mark Pritchard: My right hon. Friend, as always, makes an excellent point, on which I will touch later. Sometimes the problem arises from a misrepresentation of the Christian faith, or a misunderstanding of what other faith communities perceive Christmas to be. As far as I can see, there is no offence in the minds of people of other faiths and of no faith, unless they are perhaps zealots, humanists and secularists in relation to this country celebrating and commemorating Christian traditions such as Christmas and Easter. What is offensive to people of other faiths is when secularists, society’s liberals and the politically correct brigade use the names of other faith groups as a bogus cover from which to launch attacks on Britain’s Christian traditions and festivals. Not only are those assaults divisive, but they undermine this country’s hard fought for freedoms—important freedoms, such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion. The Government should not allow themselves or their agencies to be intimidated in such a way.

Let me give the Minister more examples from both the private sector and the public sector. In the retail sector, many shoppers find it increasingly difficult to purchase greetings cards that refer to Jesus. My constituent, Mrs. Patricia Smyth of Wellington, Shropshire, has e-mailed me in the last few days to say that, while shopping for her grandchildren, she found that

I like Santas and snowmen as well, but I think that we also have to have more about what Christmas is about. Advent calendars are also extremely hard to find. I hope that the British Retail Consortium ensures that its members do not inadvertently fall into the trap of political correctness, but meet the needs and wants of its diverse—including Christian—customer base. Christ has been and always will be at the very heart of Christmas. Without wishing to be irreverent, taking religion out of Christmas is like serving the Christmas turkey without the stuffing.

Other examples include some charity organisations banning Christmas messages or nativity scenes from their shop windows and displays; some—not all—Government Departments banning the word “Christmas” from all official celebrations; and the Home Office spending tens of thousands of pounds a year on celebrating Muslim and Hindu festivals, but very little on celebrating Christmas. The Department for Transport has admitted sending staff to minority religious events, but did not “officially” participate in Christmas celebrations. At the Foreign Office—I am a fan of the Foreign Office—Muslim and Chinese religious events are marked with VIP receptions. I have no objection to that, or to the Home Office celebrating Muslim and Hindu festivals, but why is Easter completely ignored? Such discrepancies in using public money potentially divide, alienate and frustrate, rather than unite.

There are other inconsistencies. Today, many people from the Christian tradition feel that any religious allegiance is permissible as long as it is not the Christian tradition, and that everything is tolerated except a Christian world view. It cannot be right that all views are valid in the public arena as long as they are not traditional or orthodox Christian views. That is both intellectually inconsistent and socially unviable. I hope that the House agrees that no individual, group or organisation should
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be discriminated against on the grounds of their race, gender or sexuality, and that, equally, Christians should not be discriminated against on the grounds of their beliefs, however counter-cultural or unfashionable those beliefs might be. The lack of Government or public consensus on such issues should not be an excuse or the ground for anti-Christian discrimination. Turning to secularists, it is wrong of the anti-Christian lobby, whether atheistic, humanist or secularist, not to afford the level of tolerance to the Christian faith that they rightly demand for their own world view and beliefs or lack of belief.

If the Government and their institutions continue to marginalise the Church, to try to remove it from public life and the public square, and to fail to acknowledge the Christian traditions that have weaved the very fabric of our nation and its heritage, a faith that espouses love and hope may be hijacked by extremist parties that espouse nothing more than hate and despair. According to an e-mail that I received, this week the British National party in Staffordshire despatched a Christmas card—I have not seen it—which portrays the Holy Family on the front cover and inside are the words “Heritage, Tradition and Culture”. Are the Government prepared to stand by and surrender the nation’s Christian heritage and traditions to parties of hate and division? In a cross-party consensus, we cannot allow that to happen.

I call upon the Government to ensure that, henceforth, laws against discrimination on grounds of religious belief will be applied equally to people of all faiths and none, and that those people who profess a Christian faith will not be the exception to the law and will not be marginalised and intentionally hurt. It is time for the dragon of political correctness to be slain, and I invite the Government to take the first body blow in the name of freedom of speech and freedom of religion. I can, however, provide an alternative for the Minister. If the Christian Church is now seen by the Government as a minority, then the Government should declare it so, and then afford Christians full minority rights.

The creative industries also need to be consistent on how they treat religion—in print, online and in the broadcast media. So do the television companies and regulators. Regulators need to ensure that they apply equally the rules and criteria on faith issues in programming. I ask the creative industries to listen carefully to my next comment: the fear of violence from a particular faith group should not be the ground for hand selecting or targeting other faith groups who may choose to protest peacefully.

I hope that the Government will confirm that Government Departments and agencies will recognise and celebrate Christmas. The Government must avoid pandering to a secular minority. I also hope the Minister will put it on the record that Christianity remains a central part of this nation’s heritage. To say the opposite is to polarise communities rather than bring them together. I hope the Minister will also make it clear that public bodies and institutions should not discriminate against Christian groups and organisations.

I have a question for the Minister: would our nation be safer, happier, wealthier and more at peace with itself if our Christian traditions and heritage were recognised and celebrated in a more even-handed way, rather than marginalised and scorned? As I said at the outset, this debate is not about “doing God.” Politicians, especially
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one as flawed as I am, need to tread carefully in this area. This debate is not about asking for special rights for the Christian tradition, but for equal rights. I hope the Government will today send out a clear and unequivocal message from Parliament to Departments, agencies, local authorities, and institutions that the Government condemn all religious intolerance, including rising Christianophobia.

9.48 am

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing this debate which, as he rightly points out, is incredibly timely in this advent period. As he articulated very well, Christmas is a Christian festival, but as we each embark on our Christmas shopping and hectic preparations for family gatherings, it is all too easy to forget the real meaning of Christmas.

As I know from my own constituency post bag, there is a genuine feeling among some Christians that they are being overlooked and are even sometimes victims of discrimination on the basis of their faith. Clearly it is ridiculous when Government agencies, local government, and other organisations feel so oversensitive about Christmas that they respond by banning it or refusing to use the associated words. It is just as right that festivals other than Christmas are celebrated, as they are in many of our multi-faith schools. The children from the different religions, at particular times of the year—whether it is Eid or Ramadan or Chanukah or Christmas—will share with their classmates what their religions celebrate. In fact, that facilitates a better understanding for all the young people. I hope that, as the quality of religious education improves, that will lead in future generations to much greater tolerance, understanding and harmony between the different religions in the country. Any institution that takes an oversensitive approach to Christmas is not acting in a right-minded way. Like the hon. Gentleman, I have never met a member of another faith—or, indeed, any fairly right-thinking person who does not have faith—who has any objection whatever to celebrations of Christian religious festivals.

Like many hon. Members, I have just sent my Christmas cards to the local printers and will soon start the mammoth task of signing them all. This year the front of my card has a nativity scene that was drawn in felt pen and then scanned and printed. Last year I had a penguin juggling snowballs, and the year before I had a reindeer. The designs on the front of my card are designed and chosen by schoolchildren in my constituency. Obviously, people associate a variety of things with Christmas, but it is fitting that every so often the winning design harks back to the traditional meaning of Christmas.

Mark Pritchard: Is the hon. Lady aware that the Post Office has two religious stamps at the moment? One is of a very nice angel—whether it is an archangel, I am unsure—and one is of the Madonna and Child. However, apparently—I had an e-mail on this yesterday and I have checked it out in the parliamentary post office, but if I am wrong I will put up both hands and say so—the Madonna and Child stamp is available only on request. I am not suggesting that the Post Office is Christianophobic, but one has to question why the Madonna and Child
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stamp is available only on request while many other stamps are available to people just by walking into the post office.

Jo Swinson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I confess that, having not even signed my cards yet, I am not at the stage of going to buy the stamps, but the situation that he describes does seem strange. Sometimes Christmas stamps come in a set of four and there are ones that come in greater amounts for sending to countries all around the world. I do not know whether that is the reason for the situation, but perhaps other hon. Members will know the background to it, or perhaps the Post Office will think again and make such stamps available, at least here in the House of Commons if not more widely. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be able to advertise the fact that the stamp is available, so that it will be more requested. Different people associate different things with Christmas and it is right that, as well as the Santas and the snowmen, the traditional meaning of Christmas is represented.

For the past decade or so, we have been living in a time of increasing religious tension. That relates not just to Christianity or the United Kingdom; it is the case across the world. There was the great controversy in 2005 over the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. I am sure that we have all been following avidly the news story about Gillian Gibbons and the price that she had to pay for allowing her schoolchildren to name a teddy bear Mohammed. That raises concerns and tensions across the country. It is very important at this time that we act with responsibility and respect for all faiths. That has to be the way forward. It is also important that we preserve freedom of speech. Indeed, shortly after the cartoons of Mohammed were published, I took part in a debate at the Oxford union on how much freedom of speech should be moderated by respect for religion.

Mark Pritchard: The hon. Lady is being very generous in taking interventions. She is touching on various issues that are in my secondary notes, as it were. I hope that she agrees that public money should not be used to blaspheme the Prophet Mohammed. If she does agree, does she share my concern that public money—taxpayers’ money—from Shropshire, from her constituency and from all over the country was given to the Arts Council, which gave £5,000 to prop up falling ticket sales in Newcastle when “Jerry Springer—The Opera” was shown? That was public money being used to blaspheme—

Hywel Williams (in the Chair): Order. Interventions should be brief.

Jo Swinson: Thank you, Mr. Williams. I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman was making, but it is important that we preserve freedom of speech. It is not for politicians to decide on artistic merit or overly to censor. At the end of the day, the arts push boundaries and sometimes do things that make us think. Such things might be insulting or offensive, and that is not good in itself, but forever working within the bounds of not offending anybody can stifle artists’ or writers’ creativity. We therefore need to be careful on this issue.
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We live in a free country, and those who do not like certain productions are not compelled to see them, and nor should they be.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): I understand the point that is being made, but the Arts Council money that went to the Jerry Springer show was not so much about censoring or preventing censorship as about promoting something that many people found offensive. That is the difference. It is one thing to say that we do not want to censor, but another to say that we want to use public money to promote certain things.

Jo Swinson: Obviously, it is up to the bodies that make such decisions to come to their conclusions. They will look at different bids, but not having been party to the bid that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, I cannot go into too much detail about it. However, even when public money is being spent, the fact that something might offend a particular group is no reason to say that it cannot proceed. There are always sensitivities, and they are not necessarily always predictable. As we have heard in the news over the past few weeks, Gillian Gibbons named a teddy bear Mohammed, and many people, particularly in Sudan, saw that as offensive—indeed, it was so deeply offensive to some that they felt the need to take to the streets to demand the execution of this teacher from Britain, who had gone out there to do a job and contribute to the country. Clearly, however, she fell foul of sensitivities there, which demonstrates that we cannot always be certain that we will not offend anybody. In our culture, naming a teddy bear is not easily understood as something that would cause offence.

It was a positive thing that British newspapers did not print the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, but I would absolutely have defended their right to do so, had they chosen to. I like the fact that they showed their judgment on that occasion and did not print the cartoons, but it is not for politicians to make such calls. We live in a free society, and if we are to preserve freedom of speech, we must allow the organisations that fund the arts—whether they are private or even public bodies—to make their decisions based on the merit of the art that they seek to promote. There were similar tensions over the play “Behzti”, which caused many protests. The play, which was by a young writer, raised important issues. Politicians should not get into censoring and judging what the arts should be, because artistic output will not necessarily improve.

On freedom of speech, we had the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006, which included proposals to make it a crime to threaten or insult religion. I am pleased that my party, along with others, opposed that proposal and that the offence was reduced to only threatening behaviour or language. It is right that that happened, because it is not for the state to determine people’s beliefs or to intervene in such issues. Indeed, the Act, which purported to protect freedom of religion, was strongly opposed by many Christians and people of other faiths, because of a well grounded fear that it could impact on their ability to say what they wanted to in praise of their religion, and that it could interfere with what was said in churches and other holy places.

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