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5 Dec 2007 : Column 261WH—continued

When we introduce legislation to protect one group of people, it is important that we do not inadvertently destroy another group’s freedom of speech. Obviously,
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when we go beyond beliefs—when actions discriminate against people on the basis of sex, race or so on—the state has a responsibility to protect its citizens. However, we must take care not to enter a Big Brother world of thought crime, where what is in somebody’s mind can lead to their being guilty of an offence.

The hon. Member for The Wrekin was right to point out the great benefits of Christianity to this country. It is all very well for us to hear about the negative side of religion, as we often do, particularly in relation to conflict around the world, but, as he pointed out, many of the great artists, musicians and architects of our past were inspired by the Christian faith. We all live with the benefits of that. Christians continue to make a great contribution to our communities locally, nationally and internationally—for example in the work of Christian Aid. Nearer to home for me, a recent study in Glasgow showed that a great hidden contribution was made by Church groups, with more than 2,000 Church-funded projects working in the area to improve individuals’ life chances in some of our most deprived communities. In my constituency, a group of young people are keen to set up a youth café in Bishopriggs. The place where they are meeting to do their planning and the support that they are getting from a youth worker are provided by one of the Churches in the area. A great deal is contributed by the Church in this country.

Campaigns such as Make Poverty History or the movement for more fair trade products show the impact that the Church has had on getting issues to the top of the political agenda and creating a critical mass of people campaigning and taking action on those issues. It can also make companies change their mind—for example, by putting pressure on big supermarkets to stock more fair trade products. The hon. Gentleman understandably mentioned the difficulty of getting Jesus or Christian-related Christmas cards, gifts and advent calendars and so on, and perhaps that might be the next campaign that some members of the Church wish to work on. With its network across the country, it can be a powerful lobbying group, and we all know that companies are most likely to listen to numbers on what they will sell.

Christianity has brought great benefits to this country, which is why it is regrettable to see anti-Christian sentiment. I do not think that it is as pervasive and widespread as the hon. Gentleman suggested, but it certainly happens. We need only to examine the case about this time last year of British Airways employee Nadia Eweida, who was told that she could not wear her cross around her neck as a simple demonstration of her faith. I am sure that many Members present signed early-day motions and protested against that ridiculous decision, which was an example of far too much consideration being given to sensitivities that probably do not exist. I cannot imagine people being offended by such a demonstration of somebody’s faith.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned that fewer nativity plays are taking place. That is a great shame; I fondly remember taking part in various nativity plays and I am sure that, as Members, we all get the opportunity to see a few. Next Friday, I shall be delighted to go to Oxgang primary school in Kirkintilloch to watch the children perform their nativity play, which is one of the lovely traditions of our education system. Alongside education about other faiths and religions, it is entirely appropriate
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that such events should happen. Schools should not feel the need to demur from such fabulous celebrations. I have not met people who have been in any way offended by the putting on of nativity plays.

It is incumbent on all of us to ensure that we treat people of all faiths and none fairly. I believe that that is all that Christians are asking for, and it does not seem too much to ask. We recognise that Christianity is an important religion with a great tradition, and it is now operating in a different, 21st-century Britain, where there are more and more faiths as the make-up of the country changes, and more people who choose not to subscribe to any one faith but to pursue their beliefs and way of living differently. As individuals, it is incumbent on all of us to get along together and to respect each other’s beliefs, whether we are of a particular religion or not. Some of the best examples of that are seen in our schools. Young children do not have those prejudices and thoughts of discrimination in their minds, but often learn them from the adults around them. If we promote more integration and understanding at that age, it will help us to deal with some of the problems mentioned by the hon. Member for The Wrekin.

When drafting legislation and considering the equality agenda, we need to bear in mind the importance of people’s freedom of belief. That will often mean a balancing act, because of the conflicts between different beliefs, but in a liberal society that is what we must aim for. I thank the hon. Gentleman for introducing the debate and congratulate him on its timeliness.

Several hon. Members rose

Hywel Williams (in the Chair): Order. I should explain that as no Back-Bench Member stood after the first speech, I went straight into the wind-ups, but now I understand that the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) wishes to speak. I call the hon. Gentleman.

10.6 am

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): Thank you, Mr. Williams. I want to make a short contribution. First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing the debate and on the subject that he has raised.

Many, including some of the columnists and newspapers, will say that this is just another case of extremism and of someone wishing to push their particular faith beliefs down other people’s throats. However, it is important that we set out clearly the fears that are shared by the vast majority of people in not only this part of the United Kingdom but the part of the United Kingdom that I represent, that the foundations of our Christian traditions in this country are slowly being eroded.

Many anecdotes and examples have been given so far. In Northern Ireland, many Christians believe that the authorities, because of fear of various groups, have turned a blind eye to some of the things that have happened. Just last year, the gay pride march marched through the centre of Belfast carrying posters that read, “Jesus is a fag”. That was deeply offensive to Christians, but the police were prepared to do nothing about it. The Parades Commission, which would deal harshly with parades of other sorts that were deemed to have caused offence, did nothing about it. Indeed, those in the homosexual community who would rail against any
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restrictions or attacks on their community by people with strong religious convictions seemed to think that it was all a bit of a joke.

Mark Pritchard: Although this debate is not about sexuality, does my hon. Friend agree that Christians should condemn outright any homophobic comment or behaviour within the Church? Similarly, homosexuals should condemn any Christianophobic behaviour in their community.

Sammy Wilson: I agree; unfortunately, it seems that the apologies are all wanted in one direction. That example was one illustration from Northern Ireland of the authorities’ apparent unwillingness to listen to the legitimate protests of Christians who feel that their faith is being put under pressure and attack. Another example that has been given is the public money that went to “Jerry Springer—The Opera” because of falling ticket sales.

In Northern Ireland, one magazine, which claimed to be an arts magazine, went round various churches in Belfast. It attended the church service that I would go to on a Sunday, where committed Christians bring people who are excluded from society because of their disabilities to church on a Sunday. They will take them to their homes beforehand for a meal. Many of those people are mentally disabled and many are physically disabled. In the interest of art, that magazine mocked those attending the church, using terms such as “imbeciles” and “the lame”, and expected to receive public money. When I opposed that money, I received some amazing hate mail, including some from people living as far away as London, saying that that was censorship of the worst kind. That is despite the fact, of course, that if Christians had said such things about other groups, there would have been a massive outcry.

Some local councils, Government Departments and schools have tried to suppress references to the festival that we will celebrate in a few weeks’ time: Christmas. The “Christ” in Christmas appears to cause offence. Other religions have not said that it is offensive. However, we live in an increasingly aggressively secular society in which some wish to make Christianity a private matter and to ensure that it is not manifested publicly, despite the fact that this remains a predominantly Christian country. If those people get away with that, this country will be the poorer for it.

We have heard already about the contribution that the public face of Christianity has made to shaping this nation and to ensuring social justice. About six months ago, there was a huge protest by Christians outside Parliament. They feel that the Government increasingly lend their ears to those in the secular community who wish to promote secularism aggressively and introduce laws that will make Britain a more secular nation and erode Christian traditions. The Minister will deny it, but that is increasingly the perception of many from the Christian tradition. Laws and public policy tend to be directed towards secularism, and the country will find itself poorer for that. The laws that go through Parliament will reflect that increasing secularisation and, perhaps, a straying away from some of the guidelines laid down by Christian tradition.

Jo Swinson: I am intrigued by the hon. Gentleman’s comments. Does he agree that Christianity is important in our society not so much because of our laws and
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structures, but because of the great swell of people up and down the country practising Christianity week in, week out, and sharing their faith with others in their communities? That is more important to this debate than whether the laws that we pass are steeped in Christian tradition.

Sammy Wilson: I take the point that that is the strength of Christianity. All this country’s great reforms have come from the strength of Christians pushing for change. However, sometimes, that must manifest itself in law. Although I am not asking for special legal protection for Christians, our Christian traditions ought to be reflected in decisions made by local and central Government.

It is a great pity to see the Labour party become more secular. In its early days, many in the party were led to undertake massive social reform by their Methodist tradition, faith and beliefs. As the party has become more secular and listened to the secular tradition, bad and regressive law has been made, ranging from the 24-hour drinking law to the gambling law. Those laws hurt the vulnerable in society. That is an indication that there is little willingness in the Government and their party to listen to the warning that Christianity would give. The poor and vulnerable should be protected, rather than exposed to such things.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Does my hon. Friend hope that the son of the manse will sit back and make changes?

Sammy Wilson: Well, at the start of the Prime Minister’s period in office, there were certainly indications that he might do so. I would welcome it if the kind of Christian tradition that he comes from were to be reflected in some United Kingdom public policy.

With regard to our attitude towards Christian traditions and influences, there are a couple of practical things that could be good for society. First, as the two previous speakers have mentioned, we must get away from the nonsense of thinking that we should try to dilute the Christian aspects of Easter and Christmas, whether in Christmas cards, school nativity plays, or terms that are used. Secondly, public policy and the use of public resources must reflect the fact that, in many areas of our country, Christians and the infrastructure that they have through Churches provide many important and necessary facilities. If it were not for the work of Churches in vast areas of Northern Ireland—not even in a proselytising way, but simply in providing facilities—there would be no community activities or work with young people. However, there seems to be an unwillingness in public policy to make resources available to Churches to carry out such activities. I should like action on that.

This is an important debate and I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for The Wrekin secured it. I trust that some good will stem from it.

10.18 am

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I join others in congratulating the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing the debate. Perhaps I may, as he did, risk a measure of irreverence.
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When I saw the title “Christianophobia”, I wondered whether Manchester United had pre-empted the January transfer window and secured another striker. However, I take his point.

Each year I go to visit every nursing home in my constituency. There are about 800 residents in total, and I take them each a small Christmas card. I choose cards with different scenes in different years, as the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) does, but each year I ensure that there is a stamp saying that every good gift comes from above. In the six years that I have been doing that, no one has taken offence—indeed, nor should they. Equally, when I get cards from members of the Sikh community and those of other faiths, I do not take offence, no matter what cards they send. No offence is intended or taken.

As for the direction in which the hon. Member for The Wrekin is endeavouring to ensure that the Government go, the overriding factor for us, as a society, should be developing tolerance that is not mutually exclusive. We must demonstrate tolerance. Our society in the United Kingdom in 2007 has come about through Christian values. We have the freedom to express opinions. Sometimes people express opinions that many do not accept, cherish or share, but they are entitled to express them, precisely because of the values underpinning our society that allow the expression of such opinions.

The hon. Gentleman and others are not paranoid. They have expressed quite a balanced view, and that should be the outcome of this debate. While we do not accuse the Government and certain elements of society of wanting to close down or eradicate those of us with a Christian view, a political correctness is appearing more frequently that is aimed particularly at those values that we want to espouse and preserve to allow people who do not share them to express their opinions.

I am delighted that this debate is taking place. It is timely, not just because it is the Christmas season but because many people feel that such values are being eroded year on year in this society. We want to ensure that they are again central to our society so that people who do not share them may continue to have the freedom to express their culture, views and ideas, precisely because the Christian ethos allows them to do so.

10.22 am

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): It is nice to have you preside over this interesting debate, Mr. Williams. Before I respond, I must declare a few interests. I am a practising member of the Church of England and a member of the council of the Evangelical Alliance, a group of about 1 million Christians from a variety of denominations. I was also in the same college chapel group at St. John’s, Oxford as my friend—I use the word perfectly properly—Tony Blair. Accordingly, although I speak from the Conservative Front Bench and shall be as objective as I always try to be, I make no pretence of being neutral in relation to the Christian faith or its importance to the country yesterday, today and tomorrow.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing this debate and making his case with passion and honesty. I have known him for many years, since before he became a Member of the House, and I know his concerns and beliefs to be sincere and deep.

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This is a highly topical and controversial debate. The combustible nature of the Christian faith and politics and the relationship between the two has been well illustrated by the former Prime Minister. He was not wrong about hesitating to profess his faith too openly, and nor was Alastair Campbell, who, whatever his failings, knew the press pretty well. I doubt that anyone in the public realm was at all surprised when he said that to talk about Jesus in public leaves a cynical media with the target of a politician as a nutter. Why such a sentiment is the norm in a country where, within living memory, a Prime Minister led this House in a day of national prayer ought to arouse more interest than it does. This debate allows us to explore the matter.

On hon. Members’ contributions, it is interesting that we all tend to come from the same position—I would be surprised if the Minister were to come from a different one—in expressing a degree of support for my hon. Friend’s main contention that there are some instances in modern times in which the Christian faith has appeared to be unfairly attacked.

My hon. Friend was right to raise issues that surface occasionally in the newspapers—whether about nativity plays, the changing of the names of festivals or people taking offence in ways that we find difficult to understand. He made a coherent case. Importantly, he also raised the point that those at the margin of politics are willing to pick up the mantle of Christianity. He referred to the Christmas cards produced by the BNP in some areas. It would not be the first Nazi party to attempt to use faith for its own purposes, which is a disturbing development of which we should all be well aware. It uses faith as a smokescreen to cover its true nature and activities. That illustrates the risk that if those in society who uphold Christian values are not prepared to do so openly and straightforwardly, others might do so in their place.

The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) spoke about the importance of freedom of speech in relation to the Christian and other communities, and she was right. Members present have mentioned the significant contribution made to British life by a variety of faiths—indigenous ones and those that have arrived over a number of years—and their contribution to our quality of life. She was right to pick up on the contribution of Christian groups to, for example, the Make Poverty History campaign and the Jubilee campaign. In particular, international development has risen enormously up the political agenda partly owing to the efforts of the Church and others.

The hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) referred to problems in Northern Ireland, which is not unused to such difficulties, such as the fact that, when offence is caused to Christians by the display of certain material, the law seems unwilling to act as it might had the offence gone the other way. He and others spoke about aggressive secularism, rather than other faiths, and about attempts being made to drive Christianity away from the public square and into the private realm. That reminded me of a remark made by Jim Wallis, the American evangelist, who occupies an interesting position for an American evangelist by being on the left of centre of American politics—he is a great man. He said that whereas faith is often personal, it is never private, because the expression of faith and what people do with it inevitably interacts with the world around them. The Christian faith cannot be pushed into the private sphere, because it cannot exist under such circumstances.

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