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House of Commons

Friday 16 January 2015

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


The Chairman of Ways and Means took the Chair as Deputy Speaker (Standing Order No. 3).

Local Government (Religious etc. Observances) Bill

Consideration of Bill, not amended in the Public Bill Committee.

New Clause 1

Judaeo-Christian tradition

“In observing the provisions in this Act, councils shall keep in mind the pre-eminence of the Judaeo-Christian tradition as the historical foundation of the United Kingdom.”—(Sir Edward Leigh.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

9.34 am

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 4, page 1, line 15, clause 1, at end add—

‘(4) Subsections (1) and (2) do not reduce the obligations of the authority not to discriminate against—

(a) those with religious beliefs different from those supported or espoused in the prayers or other observances referred to in this section; or

(b) those without religious beliefs,

and to treat them equally in line with the Public Sector Equality Duty under the Equality Act 2010, section 149.’

Sir Edward Leigh: I warmly welcome the Bill, which seeks to provide a legislative basis for continuing the tradition, wherever it may be desired, of prayers before meetings in local government. The purpose of new clause 1, without at all inhibiting the freedom of councils and local authorities to employ or not employ prayer at their meetings, is to ask those bodies to keep in mind the religious heritage of our country and the religious foundations of the state, which are of a Judaeo-Christian nature. That is what my new clause proposes—having regard to the Judeao-Christian nature of our country.

Helston town council in Cornwall came in for a bit of flak in 2010, when resident Pat Woodhouse attacked the council for having “Christian-only prayers”. The local newspaper reported her to have said:

“Let’s face it, we are supposed to be politically correct now.”

What authority has determined that “we” are “supposed” to be politically correct? Why should citizens of any philosophical or religious world view unthinkingly surrender to the totalitarian and ever-shifting ideology of political correctness? In the Helston case, Ms Woodhouse is reported to have said:

“If anyone really took offence they could criticise the council. It isn’t right. With respect to the reverend who opens the meeting

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with a prayer, is it politically correct to only have Christian prayers at the beginning of the meeting?”

Note that she uses the word “if” anyone took offence—we are dealing with a pure hypothetical.

Doubtless, opponents of Christian prayer can cite actual cases where offence has been taken by someone, but I suspect it is pretty rare. We are supposed to be mature adults. I believe that anyone who is grievously offended by the Christian nature of prayers in councils needs to have some regard to the roots of our country. I am sure that both sides of the argument agree that we should not be a nation of triumphant Christian supremacists, but nor should we be a nation of molly-coddlers seeking to wrap the entire population in a protective layer of liberal gauze. We should abide by the principles of tolerance and respect: tolerance for belief or non-belief, twinned with respect not just for this country’s present, but its history.

We in Britain are known for our adherence to tradition. I would argue that this Parliament is the most beholden to tradition of any legislature in the world. Chesterton famously described tradition as

“the democracy of the dead.”

For when we make our decisions today, why should we not take into account the Britons of centuries past? Of course, the reality today is that the Christianity associated with the state—prayers before meetings, Remembrance day services, the role of the Church of England—is a thin whitewash over the official reigning ideology of liberalism. That is true, but these acts, be they prayer or worship, tie us intimately with our ancestors. I believe that that is what conservatism is all about. They connect us, I dare say, with the communion of Saints, four of whose number—George, Andrew, David and Patrick—serve as the traditional patrons and protectors of these nations. One can see their images in mosaic form looking down upon us in the Central Lobby of this Palace. Even in law we have the four quarter days of the year: Lady day, the feast of the Annunciation; Midsummer, the feast of St John the Baptist; Michaelmas, the feast of the Archangel Michael; and Christmas, the great feast of the Incarnation of Our Lord, which is celebrated so widely among those of profound religious belief or of none. The reason the tax year starts on 6 April is that it is the Gregorian equivalent of Lady day in the old Julian calendar that we in Britain held out in using for so long.

It is important to recall that other laws reinforce the Judaeo-Christian foundations of our society, and they should be celebrated in prayers before our meetings. Nobody is suggesting that should be compulsory; it is simply the decision of the council. Schools are still required to provide

“daily collective worship wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character”.

That is in our legislation. The Guardian finds that “incredible”, and it is worth noting that while we Conservatives can take credit for this requirement in passing the Education Reform Act 1988, The Guardian says that this was last reaffirmed in 1998 under new Labour—so presumably it is not that controversial.

It should be recalled that the etymology of the word “worship” comes from “worth ship”, the act of attributing or recognising worth, honour, esteem or distinction. With their conversion to Christianity, the Anglo-Saxon kings could no longer exert an arbitrary power over the

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kingdoms and peoples, but were subject to and restrained by, they realised, a higher power. This worship or esteeming of God laid the foundations for His creation—man—with numerous consequent ideas flowing forth about the dignity of the individual and our freedom of conscience. After all, what value is there to worship if it is not done as an act of free will?

Even more recent aspects of British society have Christian roots. Lord Alton, a former Member of this House, now in the other place, has written eloquently about the Christian foundations of the welfare state, noting that

“the thoughts, words and actions of the Christian community were central to bringing”

the welfare state “to fruition”.

Is it any wonder that what we can fairly describe as traditionally Christian countries are the ones that are today so tolerant of those of other faiths or indeed of none? The traditionally Christian societies are the most successful economically because they are tolerant of all other beliefs. It is that tolerance that has laid our economic success.

When we look at the past 50 years and observe officially atheist states such as the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China or officially Islamic republics such as Iran and Pakistan, we find their level of tolerance disappointing at best. Would someone rather be an atheist in Tehran where the mullahs rule the roost or in Beirut where the political and legal culture took root during the decades in which Lebanon had a Christian majority? I suspect that the overwhelming majority of British atheists are mature and respectful people, tolerant and perhaps even appreciative of the Christian foundations of the state and society. Rare is the man or woman given to sudden fits of apoplectic rage at the appearance of a nativity scene in public around Christmastide.

It has been rare in our time that an event has promoted as much comment and discussion on the nature of freedom and its responsibilities as the recent tragedy in Paris. France, of course, has a unique status in British society, serving simultaneously as our favourite traditional enemy as well as our closest friend, whose culture we most enjoy, love and revel in more than that of any other country. Britons will be the first gently to mock the French and some of their silly ways—and we have some silly ways— but our reaction to the recent atrocities committed in Paris has shown that we are the first to rush to their defence and express our solidarity with the French people. Chesterton was very prescient when he restated that to have a right to do something is different from being right in doing so. We believe in the freedom of speech, and while we hope that this freedom is used responsibly, we know that any attempts by the state to act as a determinant or guarantor of what is and what is not said is not a responsible exercise of freedom and is inherently threatening to our liberty. That is why I was a prominent supporter of the Reform Section 5 campaign about the right to offend other people. In this society, we have a right to offend others. If, dare I say it, prayers before council meetings offend some people—I doubt if anyone will be very offended—I believe that it is an inherent right nevertheless and it should be exercised.

It may astonish the House for a moment, but I confess that there are some aspects of political correctness that I find welcome. Political correctness to a certain

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extent incorporates a good old-fashioned sense of politeness. I am not a Muslim, so satirical depictions of Mohammed are ostensibly none of my business, but I do not understand the mentality that seeks intentionally to degrade and insult someone else’s most deeply held beliefs. To me, it seems plainly rude and ungentlemanly, and while these terms are viewed by some in our society as old-fashioned, it is just such forms of tradition and social dignity that say we should not deliberately intend to insult someone’s religion. That is up to the individual, not the state. It is such ideas, too, that affirm that we should not go slaughtering people because they insult us and our religion. In the end, being outrageous is all too often employed by the unoriginal and uninspired as a handy substitute for talent.

This is an opportunity to think more generally about the role of religion in our society and the world. What a shame, but also how natural, that religion is so often in the headlines because of warfare and conflict—we are all familiar with the so-called Islamic state. However, there are no headlines about the small kindnesses, the little acts of love and dignity, that people all around the world undertake, inspired either wholly or in part by their faith. I see no harm in councils’ proclaiming that faith before their meetings.

9.45 am

Recently, in the House, we debated the subject of Britons who have gone abroad to commit acts of terror and fight as jihadists. What is striking is that so many of them are not immigrants to this land, but were born and raised here. Perhaps a generation before them was raised in a religious context, whether individuals were personally pious or not. The increasing absence of religion from our society makes it more difficult for us to comprehend Islam. That absence also creates personal difficulties for many people who seek a deeper meaning in life. I believe that a little religion, such as prayers before council meetings, actually prevents outrageous intolerance.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a powerful point in support of his new clause, but will he confirm that, because of the way in which it is drafted, nothing in it would restrict prayers to those from the Judaeo-Christian tradition? It only requires that that tradition be kept “in mind”. Could not prayers from other religions take place as well?

Sir Edward Leigh: I drafted my new clause carefully. It is meant to constitute a serious contribution to the debate. I am not arguing that there should, or must, be prayers before a council meeting. Of course, no one needs to go to them anyway. It is simply a decision that is made at the time of the council meeting. Nor am I arguing that the prayers must be of a Judaeo-Christian nature. I am, however, making the serious point, in this House of Commons, that this is our past. This is our foundation. This is what has made us free.

We cannot just say that we must have a “time for reflection” before council meetings, and that anything goes, because if we do that we lose contact with our history. I think that in losing contact with our history of tolerance—which is the foundation, or essence, of the British state—we actually encourage religious extremism.

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It is often people in whose families there is absolutely no religion who are led astray into following bizarre sects and the like.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): It is not just our past, though, is it? It is also our present. In Parliament, we start every day with prayers, and those prayers are Christian prayers; they are not from any other religion. However, people do not have to participate in them if they do not wish to. My hon. Friend is much more religious than I am, but I am not aware of anyone who objects to starting the day with prayers. It is actually a rather good way in which to start the day. Wouldn’t it be nice if local authorities started their proceedings in the same way as Parliament?

Sir Edward Leigh: That sums it up: wouldn’t it be nice? No one is using the language of compulsion. Wouldn’t it be nice? What is wrong with a moment for reflection?

Jake Berry (Rossendale and Darwen) (Con): In Parliament, when we start our day with Prayers, we obviously start our day with prayers of the Church of England, which is the established faith in our country. If my hon. Friend wished to enshrine the traditions of this country in the Bill, did he not consider enshrining the Judaeo-Christian tradition of the Church of England rather than any other Judaeo-Christian tradition?

Sir Edward Leigh: I think I would have been criticised if I had done that, although I should have been happy to do it. Speaking for myself—if it is at all relevant—I am very ecumenical. I serve on the Lincoln cathedral council, and I have absolutely no objection to taking part in Church of England services and Church of England prayers; nor, I am sure, does anyone else who is sitting here. However, I think that if I had tried to lay down a particular denomination, I would have been severely criticised. As far as I am aware, the Church of England is a Christian denomination. A broad encompassing new clause which talks about Christianity does not prevent Church of England prayers from taking place. So I am afraid that I cannot accept that argument, but if my hon. Friend—who tabled the Bill—wants to advance it, it is for him to do so.

Secular liberalism often purports to have the answer to religion. Everyone and everything is free, and people can do whatever they want. Yet there is a curious aversion to those who choose to do religious things, especially if they are done in public. Why do some people have an aversion to others having prayers before Parliament and before council meetings? I am not sure that I understand that aversion, although I am sure it is sincerely felt.

In reality, the liberal secularist perspective is as much an all-encompassing and behaviour-determining world view as Christianity, Judaism, Islam or any religion. In purporting, whether explicitly or implicitly, to be “above” religion, liberal secularism is making truth claims just as strongly as religions do. Somehow this can be viewed as reassuring, as we are just dealing with one religion or world view as we have dealt with others. The new clause seeks to reaffirm our connection to the past through the actions of the present. There is a grave danger of we in Britain becoming severed from our roots, and lacking an understanding of our history. Such a deracinated population would be much easier to manipulate, whether

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by a Hitler, a Stalin, or some other modern-day tyrant whose dominion we fear. Asking not even that we affirm the Judaeo-Christian tradition of our country, but merely that councils keep it in mind, is one small way of keeping us in touch with our roots. That is why I propose my new clause.

May I end by reading out that marvellous prayer which we used to say in this House, and which is worth quoting from? We used to say that we

“humbly beseech thee to send down thy Heavenly Wisdom from above, to direct and guide us in all our consultations; and grant that, we having thy fear always before our eyes, and laying aside all private interests, prejudices, and partial affections, the result of all our counsels may be to the glory of thy blessed Name, the maintenance of true Religion and Justice, the safety, honour, and happiness of the Queen, the publick wealth, peace and tranquillity of the Realm, and the uniting and knitting together of the hearts of all persons and estates within the same”.

What glorious language from our established Church, from the King James Bible, from the Prayers before Parliament. I commend my new clause to the House.

Mr James Arbuthnot (North East Hampshire) (Con): I do not want to take up too much time because there is a lot of business to be got through this morning and I do not want to hold it up. I agree with much of what my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) says. He speaks, of course, as a prominent Roman Catholic, so I thought his answer to the last intervention on him was glorious. I have a probing amendment—amendment 4—which I almost certainly will not press to a Division.

I am a politician so my natural course is to wish to please people—if someone does not have that trait, they are unlikely to be elected—and so it is rather odd that I shall spend much of this morning disappointing people. First, I shall disappoint people by saying I am not in the least religious. My father was once the Second Church Estates Commissioner, and I was christened and confirmed, but since then I have lost those beliefs and the faith that I once had, and I am perfectly comfortable with that. This is the first time, however, that I have ever acknowledged that in public. It may be true that the pressure on a Conservative politician in particular to keep quiet about not being religious is very similar to the pressure that there has been about keeping quiet about being gay. For the avoidance of doubt, I am not gay either, but I just want to say that it is telling that it has taken me 28 years in this House—and, frankly, the knowledge that I will not be standing at the next election—to make this point.

I remember that when Peter Walker was a Minister answering questions in the House, he was asked something like whether his motivation for supporting a particularly right-wing policy had been sycophancy or cowardice, and his answer was, “Almost certainly both.” I would like to give the same answer for my having kept quiet about not being religious. So I shall disappoint some of my constituents, some members of my family—many of whom are strongly religious—and some hon. Members and hon. Friends by saying that I believe that the National Secular Society has a point: not everyone is religious.

In order to reserve a seat in the House on a crowded business day, such as Budget day, we have to put in a prayer card and come into the Chamber for Prayers. I do not have a major problem with that because I was brought up in a Christian household in a country that

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has an established Church of England, but really, why should I have to do that if I am not religious? It does seem to be a relic of the past. My hon. Friend said that this was our past and, although he was brought up short by an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), I think he was right. More importantly, the requirement to pray in order to reserve a seat seems out of touch with the country that we politicians are meant to represent.

Mr Nuttall: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr Arbuthnot: I will give way to my hon. Friend, who is himself a prominent churchwarden.

Mr Nuttall: My right hon. Friend mentioned that we had to pray in order to reserve a seat. Actually, as I understand it, we simply have to be in our place. There is no requirement to offer up any prayers. We simply have to be here and stand, or sit, in our place.

Mr Arbuthnot: That is a fair point, and I will come on to that in a moment when I talk about the potential contents of the prayer.

I was saying that the practice seems out of touch with the majority of the people we represent, because only a tiny proportion of our constituents go to church. According to the 2006 Church census, just over 6% of British people go to church. In a YouGov poll in 2011, 34% of UK citizens said that they believed in God or gods. However, according to the 2008 European social survey, 46.94% of UK citizens—nearly half—never pray. I find that an odd statistic, because it implies that 20% of UK citizens pray but do not believe in God.

Jake Berry: Part of the Bill is about celebrating and protecting the traditions of our land. Of course, I believe in Father Christmas, which is one of the reasons that I am happy to celebrate Christmas, but how many people who celebrate Christmas still truly believe in Father Christmas, as opposed to appearing to do so simply because they enjoy the traditions and celebrations of that time of year?

Mr Arbuthnot: My right hon. Friend the First Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons used to give a speech about the really difficult questions that a Leader of the Opposition could ask the Prime Minister. The most difficult question that he was able to come up with was “Does the Prime Minister believe in Father Christmas?”, because whatever answer the Prime Minister gave, he would frankly be scuppered. So I shall not answer my hon. Friend’s wonderful question. Instead, I shall move on to tell him what is wrong with his Bill, if I may. I shall do so in the most gentle way, because I know that he is motivated by the good of the country and of the people he represents.

Of course I know that my hon. Friend’s Bill would not force people to pray, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) has just said. I know that it would not force councils to decide to include prayers as part of their business, although the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) proposes that councils “shall”—rather than “may”—include time for prayers. I shall come to that point later. I also know that the Bill would leave the decision to local authorities, and what could be fairer than that?

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However, the Bill would allow the majority of local councillors to include, as part of the council’s business, a practice that might be embarrassing and possibly even anathema to other councillors. Prayer is not anathema to me, as I was brought up in a Christian household; I just find it rather quaint. If people think that their god listens to what they ask for rather than what their god thinks is right and appropriate, that is a matter for them—it does not bother me. But why need I sit through it? Let me move on to the possibility of it being anathema. What am I to do if I am a local councillor where religious observance is to be part of the business? What am I do to do if the prayers offered actually are anathema to me?

10 am

Let us suppose that a council is made up of a majority of fundamentalist Muslims, who decide that the religious observance should be not only Islamic, but radically and possibly violently so. Then let us suppose that a prayer is offered which calls for retribution on those who draw cartoons of the Prophet. I share the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough that what Charlie Hebdo was doing was impolite.

Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): Surely the right hon. Gentleman realises, as most people in the Chamber will, that in such circumstances the appropriate behaviour would be to call the police immediately, because the gentleman in question who was giving those prayers would have incited people to hatred?

Mr Arbuthnot: Yes, but one can create a prayer that does not incite people to hatred but which nevertheless remains anathema to the people listening to it. Let me give the hon. Gentleman another example, in a Christian context. What happens if the prayers call on God to grant enlightenment to those who support gay marriage? That might be anathema to some of the councillors who do support gay marriage. What should one do as a councillor in those circumstances? Should one heckle the priest or the imam? Should one walk out, even though, as a councillor, it is one’s right and indeed one’s duty to be in the council meeting, preferably for the whole time.

So the National Secular Society, which I would like to thank for drawing some of these issues to my attention—I am not a member of the NSS and I doubt I ever will be—has a point when it says:

“The absence of prayers from the formal business of local authority meetings does not impede the religious freedoms of believers or deny anybody the right to pray.”

If local authorities want to hold a moment of reflection at the beginning of a meeting, they can do so. If councillors wish to meet for prayers before the meeting, they can do so, and no change in the law is needed to achieve it. So it is the principle of the Bill that is of concern to me, but the proposal tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough highlights some of the concerns that undermine the value of the principle of the Bill.

My amendment 4 is about the public sector equality duty, whose effect is similar to the first amendment to the US constitution, which states:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.

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That has been interpreted in the United States by a majority opinion of the Supreme Court in the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway, which was decided in May of last year, to require that prayer said before local authority meetings should not discriminate against minority faiths in determining who may offer a prayer.

The rather odd effect of that decision was that at a meeting of Lake Worth city commission last month the invocation was given by an atheist called Preston Smith, who began it with the words:

“May the efforts of this council blend the righteousness of Allah with the all-knowing wisdom of Satan.”

The fact that the effect of the public sector equality duty on this Bill is that local authorities choosing to hold religious observance in their meetings will not then be able lawfully to discriminate against the observances of the religion of Satanism might surprise my hon. Friends, but it seems to me to be a clear and unavoidable interpretation of the effect of the two statutes.

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): Each time I have risen in support of this Bill, I have sought to emphasise my reason for doing so, and it is that this Bill seeks to protect a freedom of choice, and indeed a freedom of local choice. This Bill makes it clear that the choice of including prayers, or not, is for the local authority alone. Equally, I do not believe that it is right to go further than that. To go further would undermine our trust in local authorities to take account of the views and traditions of their communities and to make the right decisions.

I speak from my own experience in local government, in an area of many and diverse faiths and of strong communities, religious and non-religious, where the inclusion of prayer was something that united those communities rather than divided them. In our council, prayer and reflection was an opportunity to bring people together. So many of our prayers, which were led each year by the chaplain to the mayor—of whatever faith—contained universal messages that underlined shared values, a sense of unity and community that reflected our diversity. I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), as I am minded not to support his proposed new clause today should he push it to a vote. It seems to me that we would be stepping beyond the important line and risk fettering the discretion that we want to give to public bodies to make their own localised decision.

I say to the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot)—he is indeed a gentleman and I shall certainly miss him when he leaves this House—that I agree with the sentiment and intentions behind amendment 4. But I am confident that local authorities and public bodies, all of which are already subject to the public sector equality duty, will exercise their choice with the utmost sensitivity to their communities. We should trust their judgment and believe that they will make the right choices and not the wrong ones.

It is important that we maintain that trust in anticipation that local authorities will be sensitive to local communities and their responsibilities within the law. I remain hopeful that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his new clause.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Penny Mordaunt): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) on his work on the Bill, the aims of which

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are wholly supported by the Government. There was a useful discussion about the Bill in Committee where support for it was clear. There was recognition that the Bill is really about freedom rather than compulsion: the freedom to pray or not to pray; the freedom for a local authority collectively to make a decision to hold prayers as part of official business, or not; and the freedom of individual councillors to attend the meeting during that item of business, or not—there would be no requirement to sit through it, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) said.

In Committee, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) described the Bill’s provisions on giving local authorities the freedom to hold prayers as part of official business as a measure so gentle that someone would have to work very hard to find a way of taking any sort of umbrage or insult from it. That is an excellent way of describing the provisions and intent of the Bill; they are indeed gentle. It is worth reminding ourselves why the Bill is necessary at all. The Bill gives councils that statutory power and gives them the freedom to pray.

I will not be supporting the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh). It is not consistent with the spirit of the Bill, which is about trusting local people to make local decisions. We should trust them to do that. It would be wrong to single out any one particular faith or to identify any one particular tradition. The Bill as drafted is absolutely correct to celebrate our multi-faith society and because it gives local authorities freedom rather than compelling them to take certain actions, it is not necessary to require them to be mindful of their obligations not to discriminate against those with religious beliefs and those without religious beliefs. There is no requirement for anyone who does not wish to attend town hall prayers to do so, so this provision is not necessary.

With those reassurances, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire will not press the new clause and the amendment.

Jake Berry: I have a lot of sympathy with the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), as it sits very closely with my own beliefs. I believe that there is a direct link between praying for things within one’s own religion and things happening in one’s life. I am a Christian and I am proud of it and, in a way, the Bill has given me the opportunity on occasion to bear witness to my own faith and the belief I have in the power of religion in our society.

Although I agree with the sentiments of the new clause, I do not think it should be supported, largely because the Bill is permissive in nature and has sought to encompass the wide group of faiths in our society today. Much of the criticism of the Bill has focused on the fact that people of different faiths or no faith at all would be or would feel discriminated against in the council chamber if prayers were to be held. I do not think that the Bill as drafted could be accused of that, and it was described in Committee, as the Minister has just said, as the gentlest of Bills.

It would be a mistake to single out any particular religion on the face of the Bill. We are a multi-faith society. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough

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spoke of the different faiths in our society and of how people of all faiths and of none enjoy living in a society that acknowledges and respects their faith, so it would be a mistake to remove from councils the freedom to decide their own business. The entire Bill has been about freedom and the freedom of local authorities to make individual decisions about how they conduct their business.

Mr Nuttall: Can we be clear? My hon. Friend refers to taking away the freedom of local authorities to decide these matters, but I do not think that anything in the new clause proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) takes away any freedom. If it were to be passed, it would merely require that they keep in mind the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

Jake Berry: I thank my hon. Friend and near neighbour in Bury North for raising that point. I understand it, but in a multi-faith society in which all faiths are respected and acknowledged and in which people of no faith are also respected and acknowledged it is important that we do not prefer in legislation one particular faith. He might disagree with that view, but I think that the Bill as drafted is acceptable to people of all faiths and of none and I fear that to start preferring one faith might create division in our council chambers where none needs to exist or should exist.

My hon. Friend mentioned Ms Woodhouse, who objected so strongly to council prayers. If the Bill is enacted, there is a way for her to make her objections heard: she can stand for the local council, get elected, argue in the council chamber that there should not be prayers and win the support of the majority of her colleagues. There will then be no obligation on them to have prayers. If she finds the issue so offensive, that course of action is open to Ms Woodhouse.

10.15 am

My right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) made an interesting and thoughtful speech about the pressure that colleagues sometimes feel to profess faith when they have none or not to profess faith when they have a deep-seated belief. That shines a light on the pressure that there is in public life and the interplay between faith and politics.

The Bill does not seek to define what constitutes a prayer—nor, importantly, what constitutes religion. Prayer will be different for every individual Member who prays, has ever prayed or has ever thought about praying, and so will religion. Even an individual’s prayers, whether daily, weekly or in the evening, will be done differently each time. The Bill provides a practical, workable, sensible approach, giving councils the opportunity to include in their business time for prayers, other religious observances or observances connected with any philosophical belief that they think appropriate.

Tolerance and religion are joint values that bind society together. We are a multi-faith nation, and we are stronger for that; that is why this is a multi-faith Bill. The Bill’s strengths lie in its simplicity—it makes provision not for any particular faith, but for all faiths. As has been said repeatedly during its passage through the House, the Bill does not compel anyone to take part in prayers.

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I hope that, with those assurances, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire and my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough will withdraw their amendments.

Sir Edward Leigh: I am disappointed, particularly by the Minister’s reply to, I thought, my comprehensive introduction—but there we are. I have been here long enough to know that we keep soldiering on.

Mr Arbuthnot: You’ll get over it.

Sir Edward Leigh: I’ll get over it.

I am also disappointed that my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) does not want to accept my amendment. I repeat that my amendment does not require prayers in the Christian tradition. It was put forward in a serious way, but my hon. Friend says it is not appropriate for this country, which is a multi-faith and presumably multicultural society. Without wanting to repeat what I said in my speech, I should say that that was precisely my point. We should have regard for the fact that our roots are of a Judeo-Christian nature. I was simply asking councils to have regard to it.

Much as I feel strongly about the issue, I am aware that the Lobbies of the House may not be seething with hon. Members this morning; if we were to have a vote, there might not be the required number to enable the Bill to continue. I cannot risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It is too risky to have a vote for that reason. However, I still have one or two friends left in the world and some are in the other place. I shall have a word with them in the hope that the other place might return to the issue. Meanwhile, in a spirit of good will, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1

Powers of councils

Mr Arbuthnot: I beg to move amendment 5, page 1, line 5, at beginning insert “Subject to section 138BB”.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 1, page 1, line 5, after “may”, insert

“if it has been resolved by a two thirds majority of the members of the council, in a meeting called specifically for that purpose”.

Amendment 12, page 1, line 5, leave out “may” and insert “shall”.

Amendment 3, page 1, line 8, at end add—

“( ) in no case may more than three minutes be devoted to business under this section.”

Amendment 6, page 1, line 17, at beginning insert “Subject to section 138BB”.

Amendment 2, page 1, line 17, after “may”, insert

“if it has been resolved by a two thirds majority of the members of the council, in a meeting called specifically for that purpose”.

Amendment 7, page 2, line 7, at end insert—

“138BB Local referendum on religious observances

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(1) If a local authority wishes to use powers under sections 138A or 138B, it must obtain the consent of the electorate through a local referendum.

(2) The referendum is to be held on a date decided by the local authority and may be held on the ordinary day of local elections.

(3) The persons entitled to vote in the referendum are those who, on the day of the referendum would be entitled to vote as electors at an election for councillors of the local authority.

(4) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision as to the conduct of referendums under this section.

(5) If a local authority wishes to use powers under section 138A, the question to be asked is of the form “The council of the (County/City/Borough/District) of proposes to hold religious observances as part of the formal business of council meetings. Do you agree that the council should be allowed to do this?”.

(6) If a local authority wishes to use powers under section 138B, the question to be asked is of the form “The council of the (County/City/Borough/District) of proposes to support and/or be formally represented at religious events. Do you agree that the council should be allowed to do this?”.

(7) If the majority of persons voting in the referendum under either subsection (5) or (6) approve of the proposal, the local authority may use the powers under the respective sections 138A or 138B for four years from the calendar date of the referendum.

(8) In no event may a further referendum be held within four years of the day on which a referendum under this section has been held.”

Mr Arbuthnot: There are several amendments in my name. The first is on the need to have a local referendum before the issue, which in some cases is controversial, is decided. All I ask is that we should give the local electorate power to make this decision. What could be a greater example of localism than that?

Amendment 1 suggests that there should be a two thirds majority of councillors called in a council meeting specially designed for the purpose. That is in order to ensure that the councillors themselves decide the matter by a strong majority, rather than it being delegated, for example, to the mayor or even to officers of the council to make a decision. Again, that is a good example of localism. Amendment 3 proposes that any such religious observance should be limited to three minutes because, in view of what I have already said at some great length, I do not think we want to have these religious observances extended too long.

I hope that those simple amendments might find favour with my hon. Friend the Minister, but if not I shall withdraw them.

Philip Davies: I intend to follow the lead of my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) and be brief. I agree with the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), that many of us will miss my right hon. Friend when he is no longer in the House. He has had a great impact on my time here. I am very grateful to him for that and wish him well for the future.

I should make it clear from the start that my amendment 12 was always designed to be a probing amendment intended to stimulate a debate. I have no intention of pressing it to the vote. It changes the word “may”, with reference to having prayers at council meetings, to “shall”. The only reason I tabled the amendment was to give the opportunity to debate what is so wrong with this as a practice that councils follow.

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I am surrounded by Members who are much more devoutly religious than I am. I am not coming at this as some sort of fundamental Christian—far from it. However, one of the things I have been struck by in my time in Parliament is the worth of Prayers at the beginning of the day. Even though it would not be my normal practice to engage in Prayers, I think it sets us up well for our day in Parliament. I will give an illustration; my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) did something similar. When we start our day with Prayers, what strikes me are the following words—it is amazing how many people quickly forget the Prayer the moment they have said it, which to some extent argues against me, but saying it and hearing it is worthwhile—

“Lord, the God of righteousness and truth, grant to our Queen and her government, to Members of Parliament and all in positions of responsibility, the guidance of your Spirit. May they never lead the nation wrongly through love of power, desire to please, or unworthy ideals but laying aside all private interests and prejudices keep in mind their responsibility to seek to improve the condition of all mankind”.

I do not believe that I am the only person who is always touched by that part of the daily prayer. It seems to embody what we are here to do. Every day it is a worthwhile reminder of that for us all. What is wrong with that? How can anybody find that offensive, no matter what their religious belief is?

Barry Gardiner: The hon. Gentleman said that although we say those words, sometimes they are not observed in the subsequent proceedings of the Chamber. I recall the words of Claudius in “Hamlet” after he had been praying, ostensibly, when he said:

“My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:

Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. I might be able to help a little bit. We are not discussing the Prayers of the Chamber. I recognise the benefits and there is an analogy between the two, but the debate is about local government prayers. I have allowed a lot of leeway, but I am sure we will hear the connection made shortly.

Philip Davies: I am grateful for your indulgence, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Politicians, whether in the national Parliament or in local government, should always be mindful of these things when they start their proceedings. I am not aware that anybody, whether they have no faith, a Christian faith or some other faith, objects to our starting our proceedings in that way or finds it offensive. For people who do not want to participate in prayers, there is no obligation on them to do so; they can sit them out, as some do, and I fully respect them for that. It should not be compulsory for individuals to have to engage in prayer, but I do not see the objection to people in politics—people serving the public—starting with a reminder of their duty to the people they are elected to serve. That is why I tabled my amendment.

I would go slightly further than my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough. I think it is important that we start with Christian prayers. We are a Christian country and that is our heritage; we should never be ashamed of it. I do not think that people of other faiths

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are offended by the fact that we are a Christian country either. We still have an established Church of England, and I do not see the problem with that, whether or not we all support it personally. That is our heritage in this country; it is what our values are based on. We should not be ashamed of that; we should be proud of it. It should not cause any offence if everybody started their proceedings in this way.

This is a probing amendment and I do not intend to press it to a Division. I just wanted to stimulate a debate and make people think about why this is not such a bad thing.

Mr Nuttall: I have a couple of points to make on this group of amendments.

Amendment 7 deals with a requirement on a local authority to determine this question by holding a local referendum. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) said that he would not press the amendment to a Division, because in view of the financial position of the country and of local authorities, it would make complete nonsense of the Bill. One of the great beauties of this Bill is that it does not impose any financial obligation on local authorities. The amendment would impose a completely unnecessary burden and make a mockery of all the other decisions that local authorities take.

Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): Is my hon. Friend saying that if the amendment were passed, the Bill would require a money resolution and therefore fall at this stage?

Mr Nuttall: As I understand it, the Bill already has a money resolution, so I think we can be satisfied on that point. The amendment would certainly increase the amount from what was originally envisaged; it is for others to determine whether that requires a change to the money resolution.

In view of all the matters that local authorities decide for themselves without the necessity of a referendum, requiring a local authority to hold a referendum across the whole district merely to determine whether it holds prayers is bordering on the faintly ridiculous. I therefore oppose the amendment.

My second point is on amendment 12, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), which would replace the word “may” with the word “shall”. My clear view is that all council meetings should start with prayers and they should be of a Christian nature, but I am against making it mandatory. I think it should be for local authorities to determine for themselves whether to hold prayers.

Let me put to the Chamber a particular scenario. This might be unlikely, but it just might happen that, for whatever reason, all the elected councillors in a particular area have no religious belief whatsoever. They might all be atheists. It would be absurd, would it not, if they were required by the Bill to hold prayers before their meetings? That might not happen, but it should be for the councillors to decide for themselves.

10.30 am

We are all about localism; we are not about imposing obligations on local councils. It should be up to the individual council to decide for itself whether it holds

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prayers. I hope that they will all decide, without any difficulty, to have a few minutes of prayers and reflection before each council meeting and that those prayers will be of a Christian nature. That is my view, and I oppose my hon. Friend’s suggestion.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: I support the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire—

Mr Arbuthnot: North East Hampshire!

Jacob Rees-Mogg: That is the same as me—my constituency is Somerset North East and we North Easts have to stick together in the broad scheme of things.

I support the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot). I always believe in trusting the people. I like having referendums because the assent of the people shows where their spirit and mind are. I happen to think that most people would turn out in a referendum and vote in favour of prayers if the council thought that was a good idea. I think we would find that people are very much in tune with the history of the nation and that they like the fact that, even if it is not their Church —it is not mine—this country has an established religion. I happen to feel that the ceremony, tradition and link with our history that that brings is broadly popular, even with people who are not of that faith, and, therefore, that the referendums would pass. I would be more than happy, however, to put that to the vote, to see whether my speculation is right or whether the view of secular society is right.

Mr Arbuthnot: My hon. Friend is being extremely kind and, as always, courteous and articulate, but if I were to join him in calling for a vote on the amendment, the entire Bill might collapse. That is not necessarily what I want to achieve, because I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) is promoting the Bill with the best possible motivation. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) would like to reconsider his position.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention. I am well aware of the numbers issue and, for obvious reasons, I would certainly not want to see a Division in which fewer than 35 Members participated. If my right hon. Friend chooses to withdraw his amendment, I shall not shout—or even mutter—against that. I shall certainly support him if he does that. I simply support the underlying principle of his amendment.

I disagree to an extent with my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) on the cost. Of course, there will be some cost, but a referendum could be held on an ordinary council election day—it would not need to be a special election day—on the first Thursday in May, so I think the cost is broadly affordable. One should always be willing to put one’s own view to the test of the view of the British people—the electorate—and have confidence that they will come to the correct decision.

There is an extraordinary trend of radicalism in being on the side of the secularists, and I am not entirely sure that I support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend

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the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), which is a very rare event, because he is one of the wisest Members of this House and almost invariably right. However, I feel that “shall” does not go far enough and goes too far at the same time. I would be in favour of a Bill saying that every sitting of every council should start with an extraordinary form mass—the Tridentine mass—as that would be absolutely splendid. Ideally, it would be a high mass with so much incense that people started sneezing. It would be a fine piece of legislation, but it is not what the Bill is trying to do; it is simply to enable people to pray if they want to. The word “shall” would take this Bill too far, but if one were introduced in the next set of private Members’ Bills to re-establish Roman Catholic worship at the beginning of all such sessions in our public life, I would certainly not oppose it.

Lyn Brown: On this group of amendments, I will reiterate what I said earlier. I am confident that councils will make decisions on how they choose to vote or decide to include prayer in a way that suits their local circumstances. A council may well choose to adopt prayers on a majority, a two-thirds vote or an alternative proportion, or under a different procedure. Likewise, it may well decide that prayer should last no longer than three minutes, or it may decide alternative parameters. Such a matter is up to the council, so I say gently to the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) that it should be a local choice, built on an understanding of individual local communities and circumstances. I hope that he will therefore understand why I cannot support his amendments.

I have already made the point that the measures in the Bill should not be prescriptive, and I gladly make it again. This is permissive, enabling legislation, and choices and judgments should be made locally. That is particularly important with regard to amendments 5 to 7, which would require public bodies to undertake a referendum to decide whether to include religious observances at meetings. Although I agree with the thrust of the speech of the hon. Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), at a time when finance is scarce, I do not want to put new burdens on local authorities, and we certainly should not require them to incur additional financial cost. Referendums are expensive and, especially in these straitened financial times, councils would not want to commit to those costs.

Mr Nuttall: I want to clarify my remarks, because the shadow Minister may have got the wrong end of the stick. I made it clear that it is not appropriate for local authorities to have to spend money on holding a referendum.

Lyn Brown: I was agreeing with the hon. Gentleman. I am sorry: I know it is not normal, but Fridays are unusual, and we just have to ride with it.

Frankly, if we insisted on a referendum, unlike the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) I do not think that everybody would necessarily turn out to vote. If we enabled local councils seeking the power to hold prayers at meetings to hold referendums, I fear that the turnout would not justify the cost. To introduce referendums on the subject would provide a clear disincentive for councils to consider the inclusion of prayers at all. I therefore cannot support the amendments

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tabled by the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire. We need to provide local councils with the freedom to choose to hold prayers or reflections, without fettering that discretion or imposing new financial and administrative burdens on public bodies.

On the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), I am sure that it will not come as a surprise to him that, although he read out my favourite part of morning prayers, I cannot support any suggestion of making prayer compulsory. I would not support the amendment if he pressed it to a vote.

Penny Mordaunt: The Government have worked hard to get rid of burdens on local authorities and empower the public to hold local authorities to account, and we therefore believe that the amendments are unnecessary. However well intentioned, I am concerned that they could be a burden on local authorities and hence the taxpayer, and they could obstruct rather than enable the intention of the Bill, which is to allow local authorities to hold town hall prayers as part of official business if they wish. There is no need for an amendment to require a two-thirds majority to enable the local authority to hold town hall prayers. Such a measure would mean that a minority might vote against prayers but still stop the council holding them as part of official business, and a minority stopping a majority from taking part in an item of business that nobody is compelled to take part in is what the Bill intends to put to an end.

In addition to provisions on town hall prayers, the Bill will ensure that local authorities are able to support, facilitate, and be represented at events with a religious element. It is, sadly, not too much of a stretch to imagine that individuals or organisations with an axe to grind might also choose to attack the proper role that local authorities play, for example by organising a Remembrance Sunday event by closing a road. That should never happen, and the Bill will help to ensure that any such challenge will, quite rightly, be a non-starter.

An amendment to make the provision subject to a vote has the same possibility of a perverse outcome, with minority opinion resulting in the council being unable to exercise functions that it may already be exercising, as well as preventing it from taking part in activities that the majority wish to participate in. The Bill intentionally does not define what “prayer” or “observance” is, and the amendment that seeks to limit the time that the council may spend on an item of business—in this case, town hall prayers or an observance connected with religious or philosophical belief—to three minutes, is indeed odd. I presume it is to ensure that town hall prayers do not take up too much valuable time, but I question whether it is necessary. Protracted sermons may be a stock feature of some comedy novels featuring the clergy, but I question whether such an issue would arise in the council chamber, especially as that chamber is open to the scrutiny of the public who can film, tweet, blog or otherwise report the goings on of the local authority. We should trust local authorities and councillors to serve the interests of the public to whom they are accountable, without the need for a steer on how long they should take over this or that item of business.

Continuing the theme of scrutiny, trust and accountability, I am concerned about the amendment that would make any local authority decision in the Bill first subject to a local referendum. That seems unnecessary

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gold plating, and an unnecessary expense for the taxpayer. There are also technical issues to be considered, such as how the referendums would work with those local authorities exercising the general power of competence. The Bill is to enable smaller parish and town councils, and other local authorities such as single-purpose authorities, to hold town hall prayers as part of their business if they wish, but those local authorities are not mentioned in the amendments.

Amendment 12 is perhaps my greatest concern. The freedom not to hold town hall prayers is the choice of the local authority, and just as important as the freedom to hold them. Compelling a local authority to hold town hall prayers, or an observance connected with a religious or philosophical belief, is against the spirit of the Bill, and it would no longer be the gentle and inclusive measure that celebrates all faiths that is intended. I hope that the message is clear that we should trust our local councillors and the public with the measures in the Bill, and that the amendments will not be pressed.

Jake Berry: I have several concerns about the group of amendments tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), but they have been helpful in enabling us to discuss and further explore the extent of the Bill. I have a particular concern about the proposal to limit prayers to three minutes. We have talked about the parliamentary Prayers with which we start every day here in Parliament. I glanced over my shoulder this morning just as we finished our prayers to see that they lasted three minutes and 40 seconds, so parliamentary Prayers would offend the proposed three-minute limit. I do not think that in religious observance of any kind there is room for a stopwatch.

10.45 am

Jacob Rees-Mogg: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way on the issue of a stopwatch. I would like to bring to his attention the fact that in the church in Nempnett Thrubwell in my constituency there is a 20-minute egg timer for the sermon.

Jake Berry: I can think of several church services I have been to recently where I might have wanted to take the egg timer with me. I will come on to the comments made by my hon. Friend in a moment. I look forward in particular to supporting his Bill, following the next private Members’ Bill ballot, to reintroduce a full mass before every sitting of the House.

I came to this place in 2010. I, and colleagues, have had the privilege often of being in this Chamber when huge events of national importance were about to take place and we were about to consider and debate them. I think particularly of the riots, where Parliament was recalled, and the parliamentary votes on whether to take military action in Libya and in Syria. On each occasion when I attended Prayers, they extended beyond three minutes. The Speaker’s Chaplain the Rev. Rose, who is a wonderful and inspirational preacher, extended the prayers to discuss—they are held in private, but if I may just lift the veil briefly—the matters being considered later that day. I am sure colleagues of faith and of no faith enjoyed the extended opportunity to consider the very difficult decisions we faced, and enjoyed the style and eloquence with which the Speaker’s Chaplain conducted

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proceedings. If the three-minute rule were introduced in local authorities, where they have similar difficult decisions to make on issues of local importance—opening schools, closing schools or cancelling bus services—they would be hampered by the time limit.

I am also concerned about why it should be necessary for a council to have a two-thirds majority to have prayers. If we were to have a two-thirds majority for prayers, why should that not be the case for everything else? I am sure local people would feel that lots of important issues of day-to-day relevance should be decided by a two-thirds majority—moving from weekly to fortnightly bin collections, for example. Such issues have more relevance and impact on people’s lives than council prayers. The decision on whether a council is able to pray should be made by a simple majority. I will be resisting the amendments and hope that they will not be pressed to a Division.

The proposal to hold a referendum every four years is unnecessary and overly bureaucratic. It should be for councils to decide locally, in their town hall, what goes on. Everyone who opposes the decisions they make already has a vote in a referendum every four years: they can sack all of their councillors. I have known some very lazy councillors in my time—I will not name them—and I would encourage people to sack them at local elections.

If people oppose what is done, either in Parliament or in the council chamber, they now have many ways to communicate it. They can contact their representatives on Facebook and Twitter. They have even been known occasionally to send Members of Parliament e-mails—several hundred a day. They do not need a referendum if they are unhappy with decisions; they can vote out councillors every four years and, in between, have many, many ways of making contact and corresponding with them. I am grateful for the amendments that have been tabled. They have improved the debate today, but I do not think they are necessary and I hope they will be resisted.

The amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) is also valuable in enabling us to discuss the Bill’s provisions and how they would affect local people. I am an advocate of and a believer in localism. I do not think it is for Whitehall to dictate to councils how they should conduct their business; the town hall should be free to do so. We should not seek to mandate from this place or even move towards mandating from this place how local authorities conduct their business, especially in such a sensitive area as religious belief. The Bill is, as has been stated repeatedly, about freedom and about empowering and entrusting that freedom to our local authority councillors, the vast majority of whom, if not all, are excellent individuals who have sharp and keen minds capable of making the decision locally about how to conduct their business.

Finally, I promised to return to the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg). The idea of his private Member’s Bill for starting all proceedings in local authorities with a mass and incense might be an idea with legs, so I will watch with interest where he comes in the private Members’ ballot next year. I may be prepared to become a subscriber to his Bill, although I am not sure that I would support the abolition of the Church of England and the restoration of the Roman Catholic Church. There are, of course,

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Anglo-Catholics who are almost more Catholic than the Catholics in some of their tastes and traditions for their own Church, so this could be explored further on a future date.

With all those assurances, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire will be willing to withdraw his amendment and that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley will not press his.

Mr Arbuthnot: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Third Reading

10.51 am

Jake Berry: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I shall not detain the House for long. We have had a good debate today, and I have enjoyed it immensely. I am grateful for the contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and for Shipley (Philip Davies), my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), my hon. Friends the Members for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) and for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), the Minister and the shadow Minister.

Let me briefly put on the record my thanks to the Minister for her support of this Bill and my profound thanks to all the officials from her Department who have been excellent. Whenever I had a question to ask, they were happy to help and advise. They have been instrumental in ensuring the smooth passage of the Bill through the House. I thank the shadow Minister and Opposition Members for their support. It is clear that this Bill can unite parties and people across the House in support of providing freedom for people to pray.

It has been a great privilege for me to have the opportunity to bring forward a private Member’s Bill in an area that is of particular interest to me—religious freedom and faith. It is a great privilege to have this Bill now being read for the Third time. I have been contacted by churches and people of faith in my constituency, including imams and representatives from our local mosque. The Bill has not only been discussed here, but has been held in the prayers and religious observances of many people across Rossendale and Darwen. I am sure from the number of people who have written to me to wish us luck that many across our nation have been inspired by the Bill.

I said at the time of the money resolution that I believed—and I still believe—that there is more power in prayer than in the stroke of any Minister’s pen, than in the power of the Chair—and you were in the Chair at the time, Madam Deputy Speaker—or than in any Division of this House. I am extremely grateful to people all over the country, and more particularly in my constituency, who have held this Bill and its passage through Parliament in their prayers. I hope that they will continue to hold it in their prayers as it proceeds through the other place.

10.54 am

Lyn Brown: It is a privilege to rise again in support of this Bill. Let me express my thanks once again to the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) for taking it through the House with such confidence, style and aplomb.

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Last week’s discussion in Committee indicated a breadth of support from all parts of the House, and I am pleased that the point was made—time and again—that this Bill fundamentally protects freedom of choice. I warmly congratulate the hon. Gentleman on seeking to preserve the balance in the Bill, and I applaud the gentleness of the language. The word “may” as proposed in clause 1 is crucial. It is not for us to determine whether prayers should be included; it is our role simply to enable those decisions to be taken at a local level and based on individual local circumstances.

As I have said, I come from a multi-faith community—one that celebrates diversity of religion and culture. Our gurdwaras, our mosques, our temples and our churches of all types and denominations are full on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Having served as a local councillor, I know it was our tradition to have chaplains of all faiths exercising their role in the council chamber. Prayer was used as a means of bringing people together and highlighting the common ground that is found in many, if not all, faiths.

The Bill does not make prayers compulsory. It is simply about giving councils and public bodies the right to include prayers if they so wish. It is right that these decisions are taken locally, that they take into account the range of traditions, cultures and views of communities and that councils are sensitive in exercising their discretion. Should they decide to incorporate prayers or reflections of whatever tradition, councils will be able to take decisions about the detail of arrangements to ensure that they are inclusive and that no one is left feeling excluded or alienated. We must trust that our councils are best placed to make decisions that accurately reflect the needs and wishes of their own communities.

I welcome the Bill, which delivers the same degree of choice for a wide array of public bodies listed under clause 2. I think it is a clever way of emphasising that all public bodies, of whatever stripe, have a role to play in supporting communities and promoting community cohesion, as well as encouraging faith and non-faith groups to engage with those public bodies and contribute to that cohesion. I thought that was really well done.

I support the hon. Gentleman, too, in his efforts to ensure that all types of local authorities are entitled to make a decision of their own and to contribute in the same way as larger bodies. I am grateful for the clarification he brought to underline the opportunity for local authorities to contribute to religious events. He illustrated clearly in Committee, and again today, that the Bill will protect traditions that we take for granted at the moment.

At its heart, the Bill is about maintaining the right balance, providing choice without prescribing measures; enabling prayers to be included, while also making it clear that this is a localised decision to be based on local circumstances. I believe the hon. Gentleman has got the balance absolutely right, and I am happy to support the progress of his Bill.

10.58 am

Mr Nuttall: I rise to support the Third Reading of this Bill. As the House will be aware, the Bill received what I described in Committee as the equivalent of a bye in the first round of the FA cup in that there was no debate on Second Reading. There was a brief discussion about the Bill when the money resolution was passed.

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Apart from that and the Committee debate, today has been the first—and, indeed, the only—occasion on which the Bill has been discussed on the Floor of the House. Let me thank my parliamentary next-door neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), for introducing the Bill.

From time to time, we are faced with situations brought about as a result of an unexpected turn of events in the courts. Judges sometimes reach decisions that throw into question the whole basis on which we have previously conducted our affairs in this country. In 2010, earlier in the present Parliament, there was a court case involving Bideford town council, a member of which, with the support of the National Secular Society, objected to the holding of prayers at the beginning of council meetings. Prayers were included on the agenda as the first item, before apologies for absence. Although the council member tabled motions to end the practice, they were rejected, so—again, with the help of the National Secular Society—he took the council to court, where it was argued that the council had no power to hold prayers as part of its formal business. Everyone in the land had always assumed that councils did have that power.

It is testimony to the ability of my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen that he has managed to pilot the Bill to its current stage, with the result that it is now crystal clear that councils have the power to hold prayers as part of their proceedings. It also clear that councils can take part in and facilitate religious events. That is particularly relevant to remembrance, and specifically, in my own local authority in Bury, to the marking of Gallipoli day.

Mr Arbuthnot: My hon. Friend is making a very good point about councils needing to be represented at remembrance events, but, speaking as one who does not have a belief in God, I wonder whether those events need involve God. I think it is very important for us to commemorate, honour and respect veterans and those who have died fighting for their country, and I have no objection to this part of the Bill, because I think that councils need to be represented at such events, but I find it regrettable that those events must necessarily involve something in which many people do not believe.

Mr Nuttall: No one is suggesting that those who have no faith should not be equally able to commemorate events of the past in their own way, but we have a long-standing tradition in this country of commemorating them by attending a religious service. Of course, there is no reason why those who have no faith whatsoever cannot organise a separate event with no religious content. However, I think that most authorities hold religious services. Bury council has a long tradition of commemorating Gallipoli day, marking it with a special Sunday on which it holds a civic service every year. The centenary of Gallipoli will be commemorated this year, not just in Bury but across the country.

For all those reasons, I am pleased to be able to support the Bill. I am sure that it will be given a Third Reading, and I wish it a speedy passage in the other place.

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11.4 am

Penny Mordaunt: I do not wish to delay the House, but I think it is worth our reminding ourselves why the Bill is necessary at all. It is necessary because in 2012 the High Court ruled, on the basis on a narrow interpretation of the Local Government Act 1972, that councils had no statutory power to hold prayers as part of official business. The Bill will give councils that statutory power, and gives them freedom to pray.

As has already been made clear, the Bill does not compel anyone to pray; nor does it define what constitutes prayer, or what constitutes religion. It does not contain an exclusive list of religions or a definition of what constitutes prayer, because it gives bodies and individuals freedom to determine those matters for themselves. It takes a workable approach, giving local authorities freedom to include in their business time for prayers or other religious observance, or observance connected with a religious or philosophical belief. It also enables them to support, facilitate and be represented at events with a religious element.

Throughout the Bill’s passage so far, I have had in mind an event in my constituency: our Remembrance day service in Portsmouth, which, as would be expected in Portsmouth, is a pretty spectacular event. Representatives of all the main faiths in the city give readings and say prayers, which are interspersed with secular poems and hymns. It is an amazing event, which gathers huge crowds. I think that it is much stronger for the participation of all the city’s faith groups, and I say that as one who did not swear on the Holy Book when I affirmed my allegiance to Her Majesty and took my seat, but made a secular affirmation. I recognise the important role that religion plays in civic life, and I think that my local branch of the Royal Navy chaplaincy would have been very concerned to hear the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot).

Faith can be a unifying force for good. Faith organisations are intertwined with our communities. Councils, and councillors, should be free to allow faith to play a part in their business should they wish it to do so. The Government support the Bill because it gives authorities freedom to pray if they wish. The choice will be a local one. It will be for councils, and for the public who elect their councillors, to decide whether meetings will begin with a prayer, a reflection, or neither. It will be for councils to determine the content of prayers, which may, for instance, reflect the faith composition of their local areas. We consider that the Bill performs a valuable function. It is right for an authority that makes the decision to say prayers as part of its formal business to be able to do so. We should trust local people to decide.

I commend this straightforward, sensible and proportionate Bill to the House, and I thank and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry).

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

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Control of Horses Bill

Consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee

Clause 1

Powers of local authorities in England to detain horses

11.9 am

Mr James Arbuthnot (North East Hampshire) (Con): I beg to move amendment 1, page 2, line 8, leave out “an” and insert “a pony, jennet,”

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 2, page 2, line 35, in clause 2, leave out

“to whom the horse belongs”

and insert

“both to whom the horse belongs and an address within the United Kingdom at which proper service as defined under this section may be made”.

Amendment 3, page 2, line 36, in clause 2, at end insert—

‘( ) For the purposes of this section proper service of a notice may be made by posting by first class post to the address of the person to whom the horse belongs a written notice—

(a) stating that the horse has been seized and the date and time at which it was seized; and

(b) giving details of how contact can be made with the person detaining the horse.”

Mr Arbuthnot: It is strange that I should have views on both this Bill and the one that preceded it. I entirely support this Bill, which does something necessary and helpful.

Amendment 1 clarifies the definition of “horse” in clause 1. I just suggest that it should, as the Welsh equivalent Bill does, make it clear that the word “horse” includes ponies and jennets.

Mr David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I am not trying to be clever or unhelpful, but I do think that the normal definition of a horse would include anything that was of the same species as a horse—that is to say equus ferus caballus—which ponies and jennets are. Donkeys are separately identified because they are not the same species. They are equines, but they are equus africanus asinus, if I remember correctly, and therefore they have to be defined separately, but—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): Order. I very rarely pick up on points like this, but the hon. Gentleman must address the Chair—or must look as if he is just occasionally addressing the Chair—and not have his back to the House.

Mr Heath: Please forgive me, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have not been in the House for very long, as you know, and that is a mistake that incomers make. I do apologise. I also sound like I am lecturing the right hon. Gentleman, but I am not trying to; I am simply saying that I think his amendment is otiose.

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Mr Arbuthnot: My hon. Friend is almost certainly right. It is clear from his intervention that he knows far more about this matter than I do—he probably knows far more about most matters than I do.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): The right hon. Gentleman has said the legislation is already in place in Wales, and, as a Welsh MP, may I say that I think it is important to make the distinction, as the vast majority of animals left on these fields are ponies?

Mr Arbuthnot: As it happens, until a couple of years ago we had, in the meadow next to our house, a pony—that sadly died at the age of 35, which I think is going it some, frankly. It was as a result of the knowledge of our own pony, who was called Porky, that I moved this amendment. If this amendment is unnecessary and we do not need to describe what a horse is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) suggests, I will move on to my second and third amendments.

I think these two amendments are more important. I think they genuinely address what may be a problem with the Bill, but my hon. Friend the Minister will no doubt set me right on that when he comes to speak. I think the problem may be this: the detention of a horse under the provisions of this Bill could be continued beyond 24 hours if the person who detains the horse does not know to whom the horse belongs, provided he tells the police about it, but it could not be continued beyond 24 hours if the person who detains the horse does know to whom the horse belongs, but does not know how to get hold of him. These amendments are intended—despite my own, no doubt, cack-handed drafting—to deal with that. My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome will no doubt tell us whether they achieve the clarity and helpfulness I intend to achieve, but that is the purpose behind them.

Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): One can only speculate as to why the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) has brought forward this group of amendments. However, Opposition Members would not wish them—or amendment 4, which is to be debated later—to delay the passage of the Bill, so I will be brief.

Amendment 1 attempts to clarify further the definition of what actually constitutes a horse, and I would encourage the Minister to put on the record later in the debate a full definition and whether, indeed, this covers a jennet or a pony. The term “jennet” is used to describe a Spanish jennet horse. It is, I understand, a fairly new breed registration dedicated to an attempt to recreate the coloured variety of gaited horses that resembles the historical jennet or “Spanish jennet.” It would seem obvious, therefore, that the term “horse” as already used in the Bill would cover a jennet, but I await the Minister’s response.

The term “pony” is used to describe a small equus which, depending on context, can be a horse that is under an approximate or exact height at the withers—usually 14.2 hands, if memory serves, with the hand being 4 inches in imperial measure—or alternatively is a small horse with a specific conformation and temperament. Again, the Minister may wish to elaborate.

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11.15 am

Amendment 2 would require the detaining authority to inform the owner of the horse, if the identity of such a person is known, at an address within the UK. Amendment 3 allows for such notice to be given by way of a written communication, delivered by first-class post. According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, however, the vast majority of horses it deals with do not have any identifiable owners. Clause 3 already states that when a horse has been detained the detaining authority should give notice of the detention to an officer in charge of a police station and, if known, the person to whom that horse belongs.

These amendments appear well intentioned, but they are potentially cumbersome. The right hon. Gentleman who has moved them has elaborated on their intention, but I am afraid has not, to my satisfaction, made a case strong enough to warrant Opposition support. Of course the guidance that emerges from this Bill may well detail good practice, which involves notice being given wherever possible at a specific address and, where it is warranted, this being given by way of first-class post. On that note, I await the Minister’s response.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (George Eustice): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) for tabling these amendments and asking some important questions about the Bill.

Amendment 1 seeks to add ponies and jennets to the definition of a horse covered by the Bill and, in turn, to the provisions on horses in the Animals Act 1971. It may be helpful quickly to explain how the provisions in the Control of Horses Bill amend the Animals Act 1971. The Bill carves out special arrangements in the 1971 Act for stray and fly-grazing horses and other equidae. Its leaves the measures in the 1971 Act as they apply to other livestock unchanged. The provisions cover a range of equidae. As well as horses, the Bill’s provisions apply to asses, mules and hinnies. These equidae need special mention because, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) pointed out, they are not horses. Each is a different species. Horses are of the equus ferus caballus, and ponies are of the same species, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out. It might also be worth clarifying that the legal definition of a donkey is an ass, so they are also covered.

A pony is just a small horse and does not need to be specified, so they are already covered. Similarly, a jennet is a small breed of horse. Thus neither ponies nor jennets need to included in the definition of horse.

For completeness, I should say that I asked a number of questions about the definitions when scrutinising this Bill with officials, and I therefore point out that a mule is the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse, and a hinny is the offspring of a male horse and a female donkey. That is made clear in the legislation.

I understand the reasoning behind amendments 2 and 3. My right hon. Friend just wants to make it clear that there is a proper process for contacting the owners of a horse, where this is known. Unfortunately, it is not always easy for a person or local authority detaining a horse to identify the owner and then serve them with a notice of detention. Many fly-grazed horses cannot be identified through microchipping, as required by law,

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and even when a horse can be properly identified, the person detaining it might not be able to access its identification data.

We considered these points and decided that the police should remain the central point of contact for reporting detained or missing horses, and that notice of detention should be registered with the police in any case, even when the person detaining the horse is able to notify the horse’s owner. Under the existing provisions in the Animals Act 1971, the police have systems in place for registering this kind of information, which is often shared with local authorities. Horse owners should therefore contact the police immediately if they are concerned that their horse might have been detained.

The Bill leaves it open to the person detaining a fly-grazing horse to contact the owner directly, if the owner is known to him, but I believe that it would be a backward step to prescribe what form such action should take, such as sending a letter by first-class post, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire suggests. The person might know which caravan the owner lived in, for example, and could go and knock on their door and talk to them. Alternatively, they might know the owner’s e-mail address. It would be wrong to be prescriptive in this regard.

I asked questions about this again when we were considering the Bill, and I want to reassure my right hon. Friend. Clause 3(2) of the Bill states:

“The right to detain the horse ceases at the end of the period of 24 hours”,

and goes on to say that the person detaining the horse must notify the police and the owner, if they know who that is. If the Bill had required notification of the police or the owner, but not both, he might have a stronger case for requiring more clarity. I believe that the requirement to notify both, and to contact the police in any event, will provide sufficient clarity. As the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), pointed out, we are keen to get the Bill through and it would be wrong to introduce measures that were inconsistent with the 1971 Act. I therefore hope that, in the light of these clarifications, the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire will be able to withdraw his amendment.

Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): It is a pleasure to speak briefly to amendments 1, 2 and 3, tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot). I must also put on record my thanks for his support for the Bill. On amendment 1, the Minister has already set out how a horse is defined for the purposes of the Bill. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), has set out his position on that as well, and I do not need to say more on that.

I should like to speak briefly to amendments 2 and 3. I completely understand the very sensible intentions behind the amendments, but I believe that the police must remain the central point of contact, as the Minister has said. It is also clear that there has to be flexibility in these circumstances. First-class post might be the most appropriate way of notifying an owner in certain circumstances, but it is essential to have flexibility on that decision, and not to specify in statute exactly what should be done. The Minister talked about the time

16 Jan 2015 : Column 1155

involved, and using first-class post might delay the notification so that it did not arrive within the required four clear days.

I fear that the introduction of detailed specifications of how notifications should be served could unnecessarily delay what should be an immediate process relating to animal welfare. Such delay must be avoided in the interests of all parties involved, not least the fly-grazed horses, in the light of the welfare issues involved. I therefore hope that my right hon. Friend will not press his amendment to a vote.

Mr Arbuthnot: I am not entirely convinced that we have dealt fully with the circumstances in which someone might know the owner but not know how to get hold of him. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) will consider this point further when the Bill goes to another place, but in the circumstances, and given the gracious way in which he has dealt with the matter, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 5

Commencement, extent and short title

Mr Arbuthnot: I beg to move amendment 4, page 4, line 20, leave out “and Wales”.

I have tabled this amendment because I am puzzled. In 2014, the Welsh Assembly passed the Control of Horses (Wales) Act 2014 to deal with this issue. As this is now a devolved matter, there is no reason why it should not have done so; indeed, there is every reason why it should. Clause 1(1) of this Bill states that

“a local authority in England may detain a horse”,

and the entire Bill seems to apply to England until we get to clause 5(2), which states:

“This Act extends to England and Wales.”

That leaves me wondering what on earth Wales is meant to do with the legislation, and how it can extend to England and Wales. I therefore suggest that we leave out “and Wales”.

Barry Gardiner: I rise again to speak briefly to this amendment. It is not unusual for Bills passing through this place to include Wales in their jurisdiction. My understanding is that Wales is included in the Bill for technical reasons. The Animals Act 1971, which the Bill amends, extends to both countries, and any Bill that amends that Act needs to apply its provisions to both countries. However, because the Welsh Assembly has legislated for fly-grazing separately in the Control of Horses (Wales) Act 2014, the provisions of this Bill will in effect apply only to England. The 1971 Act does not apply to either Scotland or Northern Ireland, so they do not need to be included in the Bill. I would be grateful if the Minister reassured the House that the provisions in the Bill will apply in effect only to England. If that is the case, we would not wish to support the amendment.

George Eustice: Amendment 4 seeks to limit the extent of the Bill to England only, and not to England and Wales as currently drafted. I realise that it might be confusing to have a Bill that extends to both England

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and Wales but has provisions that apply only to England, but I can reassure hon. Members that this is not a mistake. The Bill extends to England and Wales for legal reasons. As the shadow Minister pointed out, the Bill amends the Animals Act 1971, which extends to England and Wales. Because the 1971 Act extends to England and Wales, any Bill that amends it must also apply to England and Wales.

I shall give the shadow Minister the reassurance that he seeks. Although the Bill extends to England and Wales, none of the provisions will apply in Wales. Furthermore, none of the amendments that are made to the Animals Act will apply to Wales. I should also point out that we took soundings from the Welsh Government when considering these matters, to ascertain whether they wanted Wales to come under the scope of this Bill, but the feedback that we received was that because they had introduced their own legislation in this area, they did not want to confuse matters further by extending these provisions to cover Wales. That is why the Bill explicitly excludes Wales. I hope that, in the light of that explanation, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) will not press his amendments to a vote.

11.30 am

Julian Sturdy: Again, it is a privilege to speak to amendment 4. As the Minister rightly says, the Bill extends to England and Wales, not because of a mistake but for legal reasons. Although it extends to England and Wales, none of its provisions will apply to Wales. An important reason for that is what the Welsh Government put in place in 2014 and I pay tribute in this House to the Welsh Government for acting and introducing what became the Control of Horses (Wales) Act 2014. One reason I introduced my Bill was to follow on from that to make sure that this is covered in England, too.

Mr Arbuthnot: With those wonderful explanations, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Third Reading

11.30 am

Julian Sturdy: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

It is huge privilege to speak on Third Reading. First, I must draw the House’s attention to my declarations in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. As hon. Members will be aware, my background is in farming, and it is from a deep affinity for the land and countryside that my interest in this Bill first arose. Thankfully, I have not suffered from the devastating effects of fly-grazing personally, but I have witnessed at first hand the problem it causes farmers, the unfortunate horses themselves and unwitting motorists in my constituency.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): May I congratulate my hon. Friend on getting his Bill through to this stage and, indeed, on introducing it? He is a great champion of his constituents, but I can assure him that on this issue not only they but many of my constituents will be grateful. This is a Bill and we are all grateful to him for the way he has steered it through.

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Julian Sturdy: I very much thank my hon. Friend for those kind words. I know only too well that not only in his constituency but across our great county of Yorkshire we have areas that suffer greatly from fly-grazing horses and the problems that go with that. The issue does not just affect our great county of Yorkshire—it goes right across the country. Other hon. Members in the Chamber have issues to deal with in their constituencies and counties. That came across loud and clear in Committee, when a lot of hon. Members raised valuable concerns and gave examples of the impact that fly-grazing had had on their constituents and in their area.

I wish to thank all those who have contributed their time and energy to getting this Bill to Third Reading. After some disagreement last year with those who manage the time in this House and seek to control this place—such disagreements can be fatal to such proceedings—few thought this Bill would ever see the light of day, let alone make it to Third Reading, so I must also thank all those who have helped to remove the obstacles to this Bill. I especially wish to thank the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for its support from day one, when I was drawn in the ballot. I am also especially grateful to a large variety of animal welfare charities, including World Horse Welfare, the British Horse Society, HorseWorld, Redwings and Blue Cross. I am sure hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree that such animal welfare charities set an example to us all in their tireless work to improve the lives of those who have no voice of their own.

My Bill is somewhat unusual as it is also supported by a large variety of rural and countryside organisations, which do not always see eye to eye on some issues with the animal welfare charities I just mentioned. I am also grateful for the support of the National Farmers Union, the Country Land and Business Association and the Countryside Alliance. All these organisations have worked together on an animal welfare issue that unites them. It is an important issue, which is why I was delighted to introduce my Bill—indeed, it is so important that it unites organisations that are apart on certain issues.

I also wish to thank the original supporters of the Bill, without whose earlier, much-needed support it would never have been possible. I am also grateful to Members from both sides of the House who served in Committee last week, in addition to the Bill’s sponsors. The cross-party support the Bill has received is a fantastic example of how, even in the run-up to what some might say is the most important general election for a decade, those on both sides of this House can look beyond party boundaries and work together in the interests of the common good. I wish to thank the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), for her work. We have enjoyed numerous meetings together to discuss the contents of the Bill. As I said in Committee, I know at first hand of her commitment to the Bill and to animal welfare more broadly. She could not be here today as she had hoped to be, but I wish to thank the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) for attending in her place.

I am also exceptionally grateful for the steadfast support I have received from the Public Bill Office and the Clerks there, to whom I remain greatly indebted, particularly with regard to some of the House’s more detailed procedures. I recommend to anyone wishing to obtain a deeper understanding of the parliamentary process that

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they undertake a private Member’s Bill—it has certainly been an illuminating education for me. Many Members in the Chamber today already know all about that, because they participate in many Friday sittings and have participated in many private Members’ Bills.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I wish to thank this Minister and Lord de Mauley, and their Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs officials. I have had the privilege of working closely with them, receiving their full support. That has been transformative for the Bill’s prospects, and I am grateful for all their hard work in this process.

Animal welfare forms the backbone of the Bill, which, in its amended form, will go a long way towards improving the existing legislation on fly-grazing. Our ability to protect horses from a life of neglect on both private and public land will be greatly enhanced. From my numerous meetings with animal welfare charities it has been clear that the existing laws are having a negative impact on everyone, apart from those who seek to abuse animals. Clearly, we need to tackle fly-grazing consistently across the whole of England, on both public and private land, and that is the Bill’s aim. If we do not do that, this mobile problem will continue to move from farm to farm, and from council to council, with no respite in sight for the horses involved.

The problems that animal welfare charities are having to cope with are all too clear. It has been widely reported in the local media that parts of the country are under siege from thousands of fly-grazed horses and their irresponsible owners. That presents a danger to not only the horses, but, sadly, the wider public. In Committee, hon. Members recounted vividly some shocking examples of how abandoned horses have particularly affected their constituencies and constituents. As the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge mentioned in Committee, a horse escaped on to the M25 last week, resulting in the motorway having to be closed for more than an hour. That caused commuters horrendous disruption, but, luckily, a serious accident was averted. However, the horses themselves have not always been so lucky. The RSPCA reported last week that at least five horses being fly-grazed in a field near Leighton Buzzard had all died from contracting the small redworm parasite. The horses were reported to be underfed and severely unkempt. They had not received the proper care and attention they deserved and needed. If they had received such attention, they would have still been alive today.

Furthermore, towards the end of November, the British Transport police reported that 12 horses had been killed near Cambridge. The animals were struck near the Fen road level crossing in Milton by two trains travelling in opposite directions. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was devastated to learn of the horrible tragedy. Four seasoned inspectors attended the scene and said that it was one of the worst things they had ever seen and that they would never forget it. Emergency services, including firefighters, police, paramedics and air ambulance crews attended the collision, which blocked the track in both directions and caused major travel disruptions. A number of minor injuries were sustained, but, thankfully, no passengers were seriously injured.

Unfortunately, fly-grazing has caused a number of problems in my own constituency. Just before Christmas, a dozen horses on council-owned land near Osbaldwick

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had to be seized by the local authority due to welfare concerns. In September, an accident on the A64 between York and Scarborough involved two abandoned horses and a cement mixer. One horse died immediately, and a second had to be put down soon afterwards. It is my understanding that the owner of the horses has yet to come forward to claim responsibility for the appalling lack of care.

Last November, three abandoned ponies in an extremely poor condition of health were rescued by officers. They were categorised as emaciated by the attending vet. Although the RSPCA was advised on the identity of the owner, it was unable to prove ownership, so the case did not proceed to court. Thankfully, the ponies in question have been safely rehomed.

A further case from my postbag involved a horse being hit by passing traffic on the A1079 from York to Hull. When the owner learned of the accident, he did not come to the horse’s aid, but callously decided to leave the animal in a terrible state and in pain in a nearby field without any veterinary attention.

Such examples clearly make the case for why we need the Bill to be on the statute book as soon as practically possible, so that such abuse can be swiftly dealt with. Indeed, the Bill does not only seek to remedy the current weaknesses of the law, but has at stake a wider point of principle. As I said on Second Reading, no one should be above the law. There are those who attempt to frustrate the laws by which everyone else lives. Abandoning a horse to a life of neglect has no place in civil society and we should not turn a blind eye while people’s land is seized without their permission purely so an owner can avoid the responsibility of caring for their own horse.

It is impossible to know how many horses have been abandoned across the country, but animal charities estimate that at least 3,000 horses are being fly-grazed in England alone. The problem is acute and expensive for landowners, local authorities, enforcement agencies, welfare charities and, ultimately, taxpayers. The lack of care the horses receive and the intentions of their irresponsible owners are threatening the livelihoods of farmers and landowners, creating significant horse welfare problems, depriving people of the use of public spaces and risking the lives of motorists. The current lack of clarity in the legal process to deal with the problems is only making matters worse.

Philip Davies: I beg to move, That the House sit in private. Question put forthwith and negatived (Standing Order No. 163).

Julian Sturdy: The current lack of clarity in the legal process only makes matters worse. It has also been pointed out that intimidation and violence are commonly used against charity workers and good Samaritans who try to hold to account the irresponsible owners. Those who have suffered from fly-grazing are all too often powerless to remove horses from their land. Although several pieces of relevant legislation exist, none provides a definitive answer to the growing problem and all contain loopholes. A major stumbling block is the requirement to identify the owner of any horse being fly-grazed unlawfully. However, more than 70% of abandoned horses are not identifiable, which demonstrates the physical scale of the problem.

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The main mechanism for dealing with fly-grazing has been the Animals Act 1971. Under the Act, after 14 days landowners may detain horses that stray on to their land and sell them at auction. The legislation was drawn up at a time when animals fetched a good price and not so many horses were being fly-grazed. The Act was not designed for the problem of deliberately fly-grazed horses. There are, therefore, numerous problems with using the Act to deal with this growing issue, which is affecting not only my constituency—the great county of Yorkshire—but areas right across the country. For example, the Act refers to animals straying on to other people’s land, but with fly-grazing we are concerned with animals placed deliberately on someone else’s land without their permission, which is a different matter altogether.

The Act allows animals to be sold at auction, but often the horses have little or no value, and it is commonplace for the owner to buy back the horse at a knock-down price, the horse having been micro-chipped by the person or the local authority responsible for the horse’s initial detention. Thus, the irresponsible horse owner who engages in fly-grazing at the expense of others receives the windfall of a fully vetted and legally compliant horse at little cost. The current law, therefore, has the effect of allowing the abusers of animals to benefit from their actions, leaving local authorities, farmers and taxpayers to pick up the bill.

Welfare charities have argued passionately for a mechanism whereby the horse being fly-grazed can either be rehomed or, in some circumstances, humanely destroyed. Sadly, World Horse Welfare says that rehoming centres are full of unwanted horses. It is therefore essential that the cycle of fly-grazing is brought to an end, before the number of unwanted horses grows out of control.

The loopholes in the current law must be closed, and this Bill will make several small but significant amendments to the 1971 Act in order to make it easier to tackle fly-grazing head on. The Bill gives local authorities and, since it was amended in Committee, landowners and occupiers in England the power to detain a horse on their land when they have a reasonable belief that the horse is there without lawful authority. It is worth noting that the provision can apply to both stray horses and ones deliberately placed there by irresponsible owners. The measure is similar to the powers available to local authorities in Wales under the Control of Horses (Wales) Act 2014, from which I received my inspiration for the Bill. After detaining a horse, the local authority or person must inform the local police within 24 hours of its right to detain the horse, as well as informing the horse owner if their identity is known. Once the police have been informed, the horse may be detained for a total of four working days from when it was first detained.

If after that time, the horse has not been claimed, the horse may be disposed of by selling it, arranging for it to be humanely destroyed or by gifting it to an animal welfare sanctuary. After four working days, the owner of the horse will no longer be able to claim it back, crucially breaking the cycle of abuse and neglect. Where a horse is sold and money is left over from the sale, any excess money, once the costs of looking after it have been deducted, can be claimed back by the owner.

As I have previously explained, it is essential that the Bill applies not just to public land but to private land and I am delighted that it has since been amended to

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include all land in England. It would be ridiculous for private land to become the unintended refuge for suffering and abandoned horses with landowners ill-equipped to alleviate the animals’ suffering.

It has been made clear that fly-grazing affects a great number of people in many ways and Members have given vivid examples on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report of how it affects their constituents and constituencies. In almost every case, an innocent, law-abiding person is either endangered or taken advantage of. It is my sincere hope that this will be the last winter in which abandoned horses are left outside in the cold without the protection of local authorities and private landowners acting in the animal’s best interest. I believe that the Bill will go a long way towards tackling the scourge of fly-grazing and I commend it to the House.

11.50 am

Mr Heath: I welcome the Bill and warmly congratulate the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), who has achieved two things that I have been unable to achieve. First, as a private Member he has steered a Bill to this stage in proceedings, something I have never achieved in 18 years in this House. If the Bill passes through the other place, he will also, as a private Member, have put in place legislation on antisocial behaviour which it is an open secret I would have liked to implement when I was a Home Office Minister. This is a signal victory for common sense in dealing with an issue that is a real problem in many of our constituencies.

I first came across the difficulty some years ago when a constituent came to see me in my advice surgery. She was in despair because she had horses on her land and there was absolutely nothing she could do to remove them—she had looked into it. She felt that the law was simply inadequate to meet her needs. Subsequently, I heard of many cases, particularly in the Frome area of my constituency and the parish of Selwood. I had a very valuable meeting with Selwood parish council, the members of which were very exercised by the issue. Anecdotally, I understand that one gentleman in my area owns up to 80 horses but no land. They are all grazed on other people’s land, and that is theft; it is antisocial behaviour, irresponsible and a dereliction of the duty of care for those horses. I think that the Bill will go some way towards rectifying the situation.

Of course, this is not just about rural areas, as the hon. Member for York Outer correctly says. It applies across the entire country and in some areas it seems to be a particular scourge. I remember having a very valuable meeting with the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), who described the difficulties in his area and his feeling that something along the lines of this Bill would be helpful.

The hon. Member for York Outer has done a great service to many landowners around the country in introducing this legislation. Does it do everything that is required? No, of course it does not. It makes a contribution and certainly improves the situation in legislation, but there is still a significant issue that I have never found a way of successfully addressing: the question of strict liability on the part of the landowner for animals on their land. It seems completely wrong to me to have insult added to injury by not only having a horse one does not want on

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one’s land but being responsible for any actions of that horse and for its welfare. For somebody who does not want the animal, that is a preposterous position to be in, but that is perhaps for another day.

I hope, assuming that local authorities and police take it seriously and use the provisions within it, that the Bill will make it easier to secure the early removal of horses that are illegally grazing on land that is not in the ownership or possession of the owner of the horse. It will make it easier for horses to be removed even where it is difficult to know exactly who owns them, which is part of the problem. Such horses are often not chipped, so it is difficult to establish ownership, and that is one way in which people deliberately evade their responsibility.

The Bill is warmly to be welcomed and I hope that it will have a swift passage in the other place. If that is the case, as one hopes that it will be, the hon. Member for York Outer will have done a great service to many people around the country who are looking to this House to address what they see as a significant issue. He has done that, so well done.

11.56 am

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on his success in the ballot—I think he came eighth, and he has done better than some who came higher up in piloting his Bill through to Third Reading. I thank him on behalf of my constituents on the western side of the Pennines; I thank him from Lancashire, as he represents a Yorkshire constituency. I recall one case in which a constituent found it necessary to complain and bring to my attention an apparently abandoned horse. The Bill will benefit not only horses but landowners.

Had the Bill not been amended in Committee, I would have found it more difficult to support. It could have led to a ridiculous situation in which private landowners found the problem increasing rather than decreasing, as it would have had the unintended consequence of making those who wanted to fly-graze or abandon their horse to do so on private rather than public land. The Bill would not have stopped them, so I am pleased that that quite obvious loophole was closed in Committee. I hope that the Bill will receive a fair wind in the other place and that there will be sufficient time for it to find its way on to the statute book before the Dissolution of Parliament.

11.58 am

Barry Gardiner: I, too, heartily congratulate the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy). This is an important Bill for many people in this country concerning a matter that needed to be tackled and required attention. The serious issue of horses illegally grazing has vexed many individuals and organisations for a long time and has been getting worse year by year. I hope that the passage of this Bill will ensure that those problems are brought to an end for many people.

Recently, the RSPCA, the Blue Cross, World Horse Welfare, HorseWorld, the British Horse Society and Redwings produced a damning report that has informed much of the thinking on this Bill. That report, “Left on the verge: In the grip of a horse crisis in England and Wales” catalogued appalling neglect and animal welfare abuses all over the country, including in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. Although it is important to

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stress that there are many good horse and pony owners who behave responsibly, a minority do not care about animal welfare and frequently put the welfare of their horses and ponies at risk by dumping them on other people’s land, allowing damage and other dangers to occur as a result of their irresponsible actions.

There is no doubt that irresponsible breeding and a significant drop in the value of horses has provided an inauspicious context to the development of the fly-grazing problem. The issue is also not helped by the complexity of outdated legislation, which allowed unscrupulous owners to dance around the authorities and enforcement agencies, often at great expense to taxpayers.

The problem is also expensive; the RSPCA alone spends in the region of £2.95 million a year on horses that it has taken into care. That figure excludes the veterinary costs. Many of the animals illegally fly-grazed are still not cared for and often in very poor health. The Opposition are convinced that it is vital that the issue be dealt with—not just to help communities plagued by the problem, but because we need to tackle the welfare issues arising from the illegal activity, as the hon. Gentleman suggested.

As an Opposition, we have for some time been calling on the Government to act on this issue and we are pleased that the Bill is making progress through its legislative stages. We also welcome the Government’s U-turn on the inclusion of private land; one can only speculate about why private land was not included from the start, but I acknowledge that the problem has been resolved and the Opposition are thankful for that.

We have been consistent in our approach to this legislation and have co-operated fully with the Government because we recognise its importance. We want the Bill to complete its Commons stages and progress to the other place—if it fails to reach the statute book, that will not be because we have stood in its way. However, if the Bill does fail, I assure the House that, if we form the next Government, we will be determined to introduce measures that ease the burden imposed on communities and local authorities by illegal fly-grazers. On that note, I shall conclude as I do not want to jeopardise the progress of this important Bill.

12.2 pm

George Eustice: I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on getting his private Member’s Bill to this stage. I have been in the House for only five years, but I did have a private Member’s Bill in the first year of the Parliament. It was not successful, I am afraid; it did not even get its Second Reading, let alone progress to Committee, Report and Third Reading.

The Bill addresses a serious and growing problem. There is a charity called the Flicka Foundation in my constituency; it is a donkey sanctuary, which also looks after some ponies. Its representatives tell me that in recent years they have seen a huge increase in the number of abandoned donkeys and ponies that they are asked to re-home. Other equine charities say the same.

There are a number of key implications to the situation: the impact on the welfare of the ponies; the hazard on the roads—as my hon. Friend pointed out, accidents can be caused; and the huge burden on landowners unable to do anything about the abandoned ponies they

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have been left with. Sometimes, people game the system. People have abandoned their ponies on somebody’s land for up to 14 days and then, just before the order to seize the horse, they move it on to somebody else’s field and start the whole process again. As my hon. Friend said, there have even been instances of people abandoning their horses without a microchip and buying them back at auction after the landowner has been required by law to have them microchipped.

The problem is serious. My hon. Friend has championed the issue for many years; his first parliamentary debate on the matter was in 2012. A number of other hon. Members have also been consistent champions. The first time I debated the issue was in Westminster Hall in November 2013, a debate led by my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot). I have received a great deal of correspondence from concerned colleagues on this issue.

Throughout the debate, there has been a suggestion that we should adopt an approach similar to that implemented in Wales in 2014. It is worth pointing out that there has always been a range of other legislative tools in the box. I will reflect on those, as I highlighted them in earlier debates. First, there is the Animals Act 1971, which this Bill seeks to amend. There is also the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and the Highways Act 1980, which deals with stray livestock. The new Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 could also be used in this area.

All that said, as the debate progressed, particularly after the 2013 Westminster Hall debate, we conceded that a number of important things had changed. First, the requirement to microchip horses had increased the costs and burdens on landowners who took remedial action when horses were abandoned on their land. Secondly, the original legislation restricted disposal methods to sale at auction. When the law was originally put in place in 1971, people could expect abandoned ponies to fetch reasonable prices at auction. That is not the case now. As the shadow Minister pointed out, there has been a period of irresponsible breeding of cob ponies, which have very little value so landowners are unable to recover their costs in auctions. We recognised that two important things had changed since the 1971 Act and that there was a gap that we should seek to address, borrowing elements from the approach adopted in Wales.

The Bill creates new options for disposal, including the ability to gift abandoned ponies and horses to charities; that is not possible under the existing legislation—first, they have to go through an auction process. For the worst cases, the Bill creates the possibility for euthanasia. Nobody wants that to happen, but welfare charities would point out that having a large number of ponies abandoned on verges and starving is not good from a welfare point of view. Sometimes in those cases, euthanasia can be the right approach.

The second and most important feature of the Bill is that it condenses the time scale of the detention period from 14 days to four working days. It also reduces the notice period from three days to 24 hours. When withdrawing his amendments, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire said that he hoped I would give further thought to his points, which he did not feel had been adequately covered. I owe it to him to have another go at persuading him that we do not need to change things as he suggested.

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We think four working days a reasonable period for detention, and sufficient to enable people to report the situation to the police, because the animal welfare codes for looking after horses are clear: people should attend to their horses—checking that they are okay—at least once a day. If somebody has not reported a missing horse to the police within four days, that is a pretty good indicator that that horse is not being cared for correctly. In normal circumstances, we would expect somebody to realise within 24 hours that their pony had gone missing—escaped out of a field or jumped the hedge. They would then immediately report that to the police. Having a notice period of 24 hours and a detention period of four working days provides ample time for the situation to be picked up and for legitimate owners who have legitimately lost their horses to be protected.

Mr Arbuthnot: I accept my hon. Friend’s point, but if he thinks it is sufficient to give notice to the police, the Government ought to consider dropping the point that if the person detaining the horse knows the person to whom the horse belongs, notice should be given to that person as well. If notifying the police is sufficient, that subsection should be dropped.

George Eustice: We put the subsection there as an additional mechanism. I do not see a reason not to have it. If the person detaining the horse feels they know the owner, they can tell them directly and quickly, but that does not remove the requirement for them to tell the police in any event. The starting point is that if they decide to detain a horse, in any event they must notify the police. If they happen to know the owner of the horse, it is reasonable to put on them a due diligence requirement to notify the owner at the same time.

In Committee we broadened the scope of the Bill so that it covered detention of horses not just on public land, but on private land. As the hon. Member for York Outer pointed out, that is important. If the scope had been limited to public land, as is the case in Wales, there is a danger that the problem would merely be displaced to private land. If a job is worth doing, it is worth doing properly. The Animals Act 1971 deals with both public and private land and we concluded that it was essential that the Bill should be consistent with that Act and cover private land as well.

In conclusion, I am very pleased that my hon. Friend’s Bill has reached this stage. The Government fully support it and hope that we can get it through in this Session, before the break-up of Parliament, reassured that we have full support from the Opposition Benches and cross-party support. I wish the Bill a fair wind as it goes through proceedings in the other place.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.