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11 Mar 2009 : Column 124WH—continued

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): It is a pleasure, Mr. Caton, to see you in the Chair. The contribution of the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) has reminded us all that this has been a debate of extreme theological literacy. I think everyone in the Chamber this afternoon would agree that some of our debates, sadly, are a little too short and I would have been very happy to hear many of the hon. Members who have spoken this afternoon expound their ideas at greater length. It was a particular pity that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) had to
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compress his thoughts, because I would have liked to hear him speak at greater length. I have no idea whether I am unusual in that, but that is my view.

I should start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on conceiving this debate as a sort of procession that would honour the work of the Churches and faith communities. He succeeded completely. There have been some fine speeches. I naturally assume that all speeches from my hon. Friends on the Conservative Benches are fine, so I will single out, perhaps unfairly, the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson), who clearly put a lot of thought into her speech, and the carefully worked-out speech of the hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason) who made a number of interesting points about Church and state.

Many Christians seem to believe that there is new scepticism, even new hostility, in relation to Christians and the Churches, and about organised religion as a whole, and perhaps Christianity in particular. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon spoke for that point of view, and made it clear that he has nothing against organised religion, but simply believes that it should not have a privileged place in the pubic square. He gave that view with great intelligence and acumen. It reminded me of the recent campaign by the British Humanist Association, which sent buses around the capital, and perhaps elsewhere, proclaiming that there is probably no God, so people should stop worrying and enjoy their life—the presumption being that if there is a God, one should start worrying and stop enjoying life. I will not be drawn, nor presumably will hon. Members, into the logical fallacies of that argument.

At the Conservative party conference last year, the National Secular Society had a stall for the first time, and I think that represents how secularists are beginning to come into the public sphere to make their argument. The society states on its website that some delegates said, “Thank God you are here”, which is a peculiar way of expressing gratitude for its presence, but perhaps that is a sign of the times.

What is making Christians, members of Churches and others so nervous? There are three reasons, and I will run through them quickly. First, the elephant in the room is violent extremism claimed in the name of Islam. No one can claim that the effects of 9/11 and of 7/7 in the UK have not had a significant knock-on effect on the tone and content of public debate. We saw that in passing in the recent debate on whether faith schools should be compelled to take 25 per cent. of pupils who do not practise the faith that the school in question stands for. We obviously do not view Islam with hostility, and I want to put it on the record that the Conservative party believes that Islam is a great and ancient religion, which has an invaluable part to play in modern Britain, but we must acknowledge that factor, and that it has influenced debate in recent years.

Secondly, aligned with that factor is the rise of fundamentalism. Conservatives have nothing against people who want to return to the fundamentals of their faith, but data from across the world show that it is generally true that the more liberal elements in mainstream religions are not recruiting members and worshippers as rapidly as the more fundamentalist streams. Those fundamentalist streams, whether Jewish, Christian or
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Muslim, can have negative aspects. I referred to violent extremism in the name of Islam. Some Jews—fortunately, a minority—seem to believe in an enlarged state of Israel that would encroach on the life of others. Some Christians in the United States, against that country’s traditions, believe in a theocracy.

3.46 pm

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

4.17 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Goodman: I was ticking off three reasons for today’s scepticism and hostility towards organised religion, including Christianity. I ticked off the rise of violent extremism and fundamentalism. The third reason is a general anti-establishment movement against religion, to which the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West referred, when she mentioned the Jedi knights, which as she knows the 2001 census found—extraordinarily—to be the fifth-largest religious denomination in the UK.

As my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) said, Christian and religious believers obviously have no monopoly of virtue, and it would be deeply insulting to atheists, agnostics and people of no faith to suggest otherwise. He was quite right about that. However, I would simply observe, as a constituency Member of Parliament, as well as a Front-Bench Member, that if the faith institutions and Churches disappeared from my constituency tomorrow, much of the tapestry of civil society would simply unweave. The contribution of Churches and Christians, now and over the centuries, to schools, hospitals, charitable work in prisons and voluntary work generally, which many people have illustrated, has made Britain a better country, and continues to do so. If by an act of the imagination Christianity were removed from its place in the public sphere—a settled place that is respected, particularly in England—this country would be the poorer for it. I look forward to hearing what the Government have to say, in particular about their faith strategy, and once again I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire on securing the debate.

4.19 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): I congratulate the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on securing this debate, which I am sure every Member will agree has been stimulating and thought-provoking. A leading member of the all-party group on Christians in Parliament, he has brought his experience and knowledge to this debate.

I shall begin by stating what I believe. Britain today, as it has been throughout its history, is a wonderfully diverse country with a number of faiths, but it sees itself predominantly—I choose my words carefully—as an implicitly Christian nation. My hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) mentioned the 2001 census in her tremendous and thought-provoking intervention. In the last census, which was not too long ago, people of this country had the opportunity to register the fact that they had a faith or
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that they had no faith. Some 74.6 per cent. of people chose deliberately to describe themselves as Christian, and 5.4 per cent. claimed adherence to a religion other than Christianity. At this point I should like to say that I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning the Jedi knights, on which the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) elaborated.

Not all those who identify with a faith are regular worshippers. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that for a great many people, religious background is an integral part of self-identity. Their faith can provide them with a comfort and a sense of moral purpose. One of the key themes of today’s debate is that a number of people are drawn by their faith into public life as a means of bettering the condition of society. The relationship between politics and faith-based morality has been and is a strong one.

Politics should not be merely bureaucratic or managerial in its intent and purpose, but should be enlivened and deepened through a sense of value, principles and morals. Harold Wilson famously said that the Labour party is a moral crusader or it is nothing. Today’s Labour party, which was born of the marriage of trade unionism, nonconformist religion and politics in the age of the industrial revolution, remains strongly committed to the principles of furthering progressive politics through such means as eradicating poverty, increasing equality and improving opportunity for all.

Some people draw their moral compass through faith and others through secularism. Let me elaborate on that. Very often people are drawn to public life through their faith. Certainly in the fields of international development, environmental campaigning and the politics of climate change, faith groups have played an enormous role, particularly in the Jubilee debt campaign and the hugely successful Make Poverty History campaign, which the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire mentioned in his opening remarks, as well as monitoring progress and putting pressure on politicians to achieve the millennium development goals.

In my own constituency, the Hartlepool for Global Peace and Justice group, which is a predominantly Christian group, works hard and effectively to promote international development. It was instrumental in ensuring that Hartlepool became a fair trade town, which is something that councils and local housing institutions now push actively. It is appropriate to mention that, given that fair trade fortnight has just finished. Such groups have a real role to play in local politics.

Lembit Öpik: I agree with the Minister that faith at its best creates practical results in the community. Does he agree with me that churches such as Hope Community church in my home town of Newtown make faith into a 21st-century event in a non-dogmatic way by reaching out in exactly the way in which he said? I invite him to Hope Community church, where he can join us in celebrating the very best of faith in mid-Wales, and no doubt we shall pray for his career.

Mr. Wright: I am certainly heartened by the hon. Gentleman’s invitation and look forward to visiting his constituency.

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The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. In 21st-century society, there is a range of different groups, such as residents associations, voluntary organisations and faith-based groups, which pull together the web of society and help to improve the lot of many, including those who are vulnerable and disadvantaged. The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire pressed that theme strongly in his speech.

I want to draw a balance. I am not suggesting for one minute that humane values and good works are the preserve of religious people. Humanist non-believers such as Bertrand Russell have a proud record of service, too. None the less, the Christian faith has very often been the motivating force behind our great reformers. The hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason) mentioned prayers at the start of business in the House. We continue to pay tribute to that Christian inspiration as we start business in the House of Commons every day. That is an important point. Some choose to participate in the daily prayers, others do not. It is not compulsory, but it can be a source of great comfort and solace for many hon. Members.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West, the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire mentioned the idea of a secular society. He expressed some distaste for it as something that is as non-inclusive and unfeeling as a strict theocracy. With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, I think that he has missed the point. British society is indeed secular, in that religious belief and practice is no longer a prerequisite for advancement or public office. I think that we would all agree with that. The idea that Benjamin Disraeli could not have become Prime Minister had he remained a Jew and had not become anglicised is anathema to most hon. Members today. We no longer expect our university dons to have taken holy orders or for all witnesses in court cases to swear on the Bible. I am sure that the whole House would agree that that is right, but I would go further. The Government are clear that religious practice, still less conversion, should never be a precondition for people benefiting from services offered by faith-based organisations.

None the less, we are self-evidently not secular, in that great numbers of religious people still live and worship in Britain. They are entirely free to do so and their freedom of worship is at the core of our system of law, as was mentioned earlier in the debate. This Government have introduced tough legislation to punish any incitement to hatred or violence on the grounds of religion or belief. Although there has been a long decline in churchgoing—it is now showing signs of levelling off in some denominations—the majority of regular and occasional worshippers are still Christians. Other faiths respect that and so should the non-observant majority.

One often reads in the media a lot of hysterical talk about the banning of Christmas or Christmas decorations by local authorities. I should like to take this opportunity to restate the Government’s policy, which is to encourage local authorities to respect the religious beliefs and perspectives of people of all faiths and none. Although certain local authorities may adopt different approaches when marking significant festivals and religious occasions, the Government strongly advise local authorities to respect traditional and widely observed celebrations such as Christmas, which are valued by the majority of citizens in this country.

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As the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire outlined, there can be circumstances in which public authorities shun Christian religious celebrations because of the perception that it may cause offence to other religious groups. The Government strongly believe that that rationale and the actions taken as a consequence are not only rubbish, but downright dangerous. I draw the House’s attention to a statement made last year by the Christian Muslim Forum that

I agree with that stance. The Government strongly echo those sentiments and caution those who make judgments on what may or may not offend particular communities to examine the wider impact on community cohesion that their actions may have.

The hon. Gentleman said, as did other hon. Members, that he wants Christian-based organisations to be fully integrated into the delivery of services to disadvantaged people. The Government agree with that approach. We know that faith is an important driver behind volunteering and civic participation. As I have said, many faith-based organisations provide essential services to their local communities, through the local voluntary sector, and we applaud that. We want to ensure that when faith-based bodies are ideally placed to deliver services to those whom Government find it hard to reach—often in the field of homelessness and rough sleeping, for which I have ministerial responsibility—funding is available to allow them to do so effectively. In short, we want to harness better the energy and practical contribution that faith communities bring to our society.

One of the themes of today’s debate has been the concern about the way in which some local authorities manage their relationship with faith communities. We have heard those concerns directly through our engagement with faith communities, including Christian Churches. To be frank, there is a belief that some local authorities feel somewhat squeamish about putting money into faith-led projects. That arises partly from ignorance—I think the hon. Gentleman used that word in his speech—and partly from a suspicion that such projects might use public funds for inappropriate purposes in a way that is not properly inclusive.

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I understand those concerns, but I believe that they are usually misplaced. The vast majority of faith-based projects offer services out of a simple desire to serve disadvantaged or vulnerable people. We are therefore working closely with faith-based groups to identify how we can improve the participation of faith communities in local public partnerships. We are seeking to refresh the guidance published by the Local Government Association in 2002, “Faith and Community: A Good Practice Guide for Local Authorities” which sets out existing good practice in relations between local authorities and faith communities.

There is also a need for local authorities to understand faith communities better, including the fact that they are racially and culturally diverse. That has an impact on how local communities manifest their faith. To that end, my officials are working with Churches Together in England and other faith community representatives to develop and roll out faith literacy training for local authorities. Regionally, we are delivering similar training to Government offices; and at the centre, the Department for Communities and Local Government is developing its capacity as a centre of expertise for Departments across Whitehall. Finally, we have said that we will develop a charter of excellence for faith communities in service delivery. That undertaking will be similar to the model of the existing faithworks charter, which Christian and other faith-led organisations sign to assure funding providers that services will be delivered in accordance with the relevant equality legislation.

I hope the House will agree that that approach is entirely reasonable. We are not saying that organisations in receipt of public funding cannot be open about their religious motivation, display religious symbols or tell beneficiaries about their faith. We understand that the principle of mission is central to religions, including Christianity and Islam. However, we are saying that the provision of services cannot be conditional on participation in religious activity, nor can services be provided in a way that does not conform to equality legislation and nor can public money pay for worship or activities specifically designed to do that.I am grateful to have had the opportunity to clarify the Government’s position on those important matters.

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Police Interpreters

4.32 pm

Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): I am delighted to have secured a debate this afternoon on the use of interpreters by police forces in England after several weeks of trying. I am particularly pleased because earlier this week I had the opportunity to submit a petition to the House on behalf of 282 interpreters who are concerned about the prospect of police forces in the north-west outsourcing interpreting services to an agency and about the impact that would have on the quality of interpretation services.

The issue was brought to my attention by a constituent, Marc Starr, who is a registered public service interpreter of Spanish and Portuguese. He contacted me because he and his colleagues were concerned that Greater Manchester police and other forces in the north-west were considering outsourcing interpreting services to an agency. There was clear evidence that when that happened in other parts of the country, there was a massive increase in the use of non-registered interpreters, in contravention of clear guidance from the Association of Chief Police Officers. The recommended best practice is that qualified interpreters with a diploma in public service interpreting or equivalent should be used. The ACPO guidance is drawn largely from the “National Agreement on Arrangements for the Use of Interpreters, Translators and Language Service Professionals in Investigations and Proceedings Within the Criminal Justice System” as revised in 2007.

The agreement was issued by the Office for Criminal Justice Reform. It was produced in consultation with the interpreters working group, which includes representatives from ACPO, the Crown Prosecution Service, Her Majesty’s Courts Service, the probation service, the Home Office, the Magistrates’ Association, the Bar Council and the Law Society, and representatives of interpreter bodies, and replaces the national agreement issued by the Trials Issue Group in 2002 and a Home Office circular of 2006.

Paragraph 3.3.1 of the agreement states:

Importantly, paragraph 10.1 states:

Finally, annexe B states:

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