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I agree with the JCHR that it is valuable for children to learn about spiritual and moral issues but, as it adds, there is no guarantee that in a particular school the way RE is taught may not infringe the pupil’s right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. With the growth of faith schools, about which our Prime Minister is so enthusiastic even though it is an intrinsically divisive idea which is likely to cause untold harm, it is vital that children should be able to protect themselves. My noble friend and others have referred to the UK Government’s obligation to report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2007. They will be asked on that occasion whether they have sought the views of children on these proposals and why, if that is the case, they did not accept the weighty advice of the JCHR.

Lord Elton: My Lords, I shall be brief because it is high time the right reverend Prelate had a break from this, and he has to be here until the end. My noble friend Lord Waddington drew attention to one danger of my noble friend Lord Baker’s amendment: that it would not work. He left out another almost equally important danger: that it has turned Amendment No. 104 into a sideshow. It is actually a very important amendment. Not only does it address the question of school assembly, breaking it up so that it no longer becomes an assembly of the whole school, making it optional and taking out the religious content, but it repeals Schedule 20 to the

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1988 Act. The schedule embodies the phrase “wholly or broadly Christian”, which was put on the statute book in 1988 after lengthy deliberation by your Lordships in a campaign led by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, who alas is not here tonight. To reverse that with a thinning House late at night would be a tragedy.

The only other comment that I will make is to reinforce the remarks of those who say that the study of religion is more important than it has been for a very long time. The age when children are reaching maturity is probably the most important time for them to become aware of it, look at it rationally and not be brainwashed, and that is the role of RE in schools these days.

I will not reply to the tirade of the noble Lord, Lord Taverne—who is not in his place but I shall address him in his absence—though one came across most of it teaching in the sixth form, and indeed the fifth form, but I will say simply that those who have lived it are very grateful that they learnt it.

Baroness David: My Lords, what do the Minister and his department think about the number of additional schools, mentioned in the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Baker? Have they thought about it?

Lord Dearing: My Lords, I would like, if I might, to give a practical welcome to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth saying, “Three cheers for Amendment No. 9”. I think it is the only non-controversial thing that has been said tonight. I support it because I took a view earlier that it was important that a school improvement partner should be en rapport with the governing body.

Amendment No. 16, proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Baker, is a very constructive, well intended approach to a major issue: the well-being of society and its coherence. I do not think that we can have this debate without hearing the Muslim voice, and I have not heard it tonight. That is what underlies this debate. We cannot bring it to a conclusion without listening respectfully to the views of the Muslim community.

If I may recall history imperfectly, at one time Catholic schools were looked on with considerable suspicion. I think I remember the opposition to Pope on the rates. No one now thinks of Catholic schools as divisive in our society. The right reverend Prelate said that church communities were at different stages of development. It is right that the Church of England as the national church should see itself as serving the whole nation to an extent that I would not expect of other churches.

As I read the letter of the Most Reverend Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Birmingham, the Roman Church accepts that it has an obligation to address this issue, although it does not accept the noble Lord’s approach. It is saying that its inspections shall look at the contribution of Roman Catholic schools to social cohesion and that the outcome should be public. The archbishop lists a dozen criteria. That was what the

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noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, said was the way to test whether a school was making that contribution.

I was quoted twice in this debate and I listened fearfully to what I had said. This time I quote without fear. Speaking in a debate on “Churches and Cities” on 19 May, I said:

So I believe that there is an alternative route that addresses the major problem that the noble Lord, Lord Baker, has in mind.

I worry whether the noble Lord’s well intentioned amendment will be seen by some of our absent Muslim community, perhaps many of them, as ill intentioned—innocent but nevertheless interpreted in that way. What matters is how people interpret things in the very sensitive situation in which we find ourselves. I am fearful that the amendment will be misinterpreted.

Once upon a time, I led a large corporation. When negotiating with a guy called Alan Johnson, now the Secretary of State for Education, who was one of the trade union leaders, I learnt a little rule, although I did not tell him about it at the time: never drive the other side into a corner from which there is no escape, because all they can do is fight. I am worried that we may be driving them. We want to hear what that community have to say, because they know the problem and what contribution they want to make to addressing it. We should find ways of enabling them to make that contribution, perhaps in the way that the Roman Catholic Church is doing so by being open to inspection and so on.

I respect the noble Lord’s motives, but I fear that they could be misinterpreted and do damage. There are other ways, and whichever way we go, we must not drive people into a corner of antagonism and hostility. We have serious problems enough.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, I think that the feeling of the House may be that we should move to a conclusion, so I venture to make my contribution to this very important set of amendments. Not for the first time, I very much agree with the common sense of the noble Baroness, Lady Richardson.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Baker, for his efforts to do something about an issue that is of great concern to us all. If I do not support his amendment, it is not because I do not agree with many of his words about the benefits of inclusion. I salute his expertise and agree with much of what he said about not dividing children on a religious basis at the age of five, but where we differ is on how best to do it.

We believe social integration and tolerance and understanding between the different social, cultural and religious groups in this country to be one of the most important challenges we face—not just for the sake of peace and tackling terrorism, but for the more positive objective of enriching all our lives. However, faith schools and the contribution that they could

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make to that desirable understanding and integration are only part of the picture. We believe that schools should serve, and be accountable to, communities. We are not happy with artificial quotas because they generate artificial situations, encourage gerrymandering of admission arrangements and the possibility of bussing children long distances to school unnecessarily, and they have many other practical difficulties.

Unfortunately, today we have both voluntary and involuntary postcode segregation. There is voluntary segregation because people choose to live in certain places because of the quality and composition of the schools, and they choose to move away from other areas for the same reason. There is involuntary segregation because some people are forced to remain in areas where the schools do not satisfy them and they cannot afford to move elsewhere.

I do not believe, therefore, that we should be addressing this very serious matter at this stage of a Bill which is essentially about something else. Instead, we should take a holistic look at the picture of social and cultural segregation and address all the factors that affect it. We should be doing that on a cross-party basis. I know that all parties would take part most enthusiastically in such an exercise. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, that I am sure that the Muslim community would do so, too. I think that it would satisfy some of the noble Lord’s concerns if perhaps we had a special commission or royal commission on this subject. It is a great pity that Ruth Kelly’s commission on social integration is not allowed to look at any barriers that faith schools might put in the way of real understanding and co-operation between the many groups that live in this country and the very positive contribution that they could make to improve the situation if they were genuinely integrated.

8.15 pm

I am afraid I do not believe that the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Baker, would achieve very much. We are living in a climate where school rolls are falling. The number of genuinely new schools will be small. I understand that in proposed subsection (2) of the amendment the noble Lord has specifically excluded Muslim schools that are currently private but are planning to come into the maintained sector. It would be desirable for such schools to be caught up by his amendment, were it to be practicable, and also that they should deliver the national curriculum, including the information about other religions that we find in the RE curriculum.

However, I do not think that the noble Lord’s amendment is practicable and workable. One might say that it does not go far enough. It is not unreasonable for one to suggest that, if the community or the state is paying for the school, 100 per cent of its places should be available for any young citizen of that state. But I should like to ask the noble Lord what he thinks should be done if a school cannot attract 25 per cent of pupils who are not of the faith. Surely he would not want to drive a coach and horses through the parental choice agenda by coercing parents in any way to send their children to these schools. The alternative is that

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they do not set up at all. That may well be his objective, but what will he do about parents who want such a school? Does he prefer them to have a private school, which is not subject to Ofsted and does not deliver the national curriculum? A royal commission or some sort of cross-party commission would give all parties an opportunity to have a voice in this debate. It is a matter far too complex to be resolved by a relatively simple amendment, even one proposed by the noble Lord.

I understand that the Government intend to table an amendment at Third Reading to allow for a process of appeal to the Secretary of State if the admission arrangements of a new school look as though they will produce less than 25 per cent non-faith pupils. Of course, we will look carefully at the exact wording of that amendment when it comes before us and make up our minds then about whether to support it. But, for the moment, before I have had the opportunity of hearing what the Minister has to say, there are many serious questions to ask—not least, how long would a ruling about 25 per cent non-faith pupils on the school roll last? Would it be for the first year of the establishment of the school, or for three years or five? What would happen if a few pupils left and the school roll fell below the 25 per cent level? Would it have to close?

The bottom line is that these problems will occur unless the school wants to educate a range of faiths within its ranks and unless parents want their children to go there. Parents will want that if they are convinced of two things: the first is that the child will get a good education; the second is that the child will enjoy and benefit from mixing with a wide range of children from different cultural and religious groups and have the opportunity to get to know children of different backgrounds and make friends with them.

People rarely kill their friends. They do not usually bomb people whom they know, like and understand. I make it clear that this comment does not imply that I think that faith schools have any responsibility for terrorism. It simply means that I think that they could make a valuable contribution to preventing it if they were integrated and promoted understanding. That is what we need to achieve, but I do not believe that the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Baker, will do it and I have severe reservations about whether the expected government amendment will do it either. However, I wait to see.

I turn to government Amendment No. 79 and the new set of amendments from the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, and others on my own Back Benches. I thank the Minister for accepting the principle of the amendment I tabled in Committee to allow older pupils to exempt themselves from collective worship if they wish. I say to my noble friend Lord Avebury that that is all I ask for, rather than them having to rely on their parents to do it for them. I believe that is only right; it is their human right. I am still a little concerned that we have to rely on the funding agreement to make it apply to academies, but I shall keep a close eye on that.

I was very interested to read the report of the JCHR, published last Friday, which suggests that the

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Government should go further if they wish to fulfil a child’s rights under Article 9 of the human rights convention. The noble Baroness, Lady Turner, and my noble friends clearly agree with them, as they have laid Amendments Nos. 79A to 79K. Perhaps I should explain why I do not support that group of amendments. In the climate that I described earlier, where we have postcode segregation and where many maintained schools are 98 per cent of one faith and culture, the national curriculum religious education course is very important. It is really the only way in which some children learn about other religions. Until we sort out that situation I do not think that we should encourage children to remove themselves from religious education. Religious education is different from religious instruction and indoctrination and, as I understand it, it is taught in a comparative-religion way in most schools. Worship is quite different.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, could my noble friend explain why she does not think that religious education up to age 15, by which time a child will have had four years of it, would be adequate to give him or her an understanding of other religions?

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, if my noble friend is asking me why I do not support the Gillick principle, I shall come to that point in a moment.

This really is the only way in which some children learn about other religions. As I was about to say, worship is entirely different. It requires children to pray to a god in which they may not believe and that is why I wanted the Government to give us Amendment No. 79, as they have done. However, to extend that right down the age range to those who can demonstrate their competence to decide is very messy. It can easily be done in relation to an individual child by a court but, practically speaking, to ask a school to take that on is asking a lot. To extend that right to exemption from religious education is highly undesirable.

Only last week a young man whom I know told me that he went to a Catholic school but learnt in his RE lessons a great deal about Islam, the Hindu religion and many others. That is how it should be. We should be encouraging all schools run by faiths to do that for all pupils. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth said, that is what many of them do. I also add my welcome to him. To encourage pupils to absent themselves from RE at any age is not a good idea and it presents serious practical problems for schools.

Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, is the noble Baroness not aware that that is already available to parents? Parents can remove their children from RE lessons, so in that respect it is an optional subject.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, I am well aware of that. A comment that may be more welcome to the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, is that I think that the JCHR report leaves a rather wide-open goal for anyone who wishes to tackle the Government on this in the Court of Human Rights.

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Baroness Buscombe: My Lords, this has been a fascinating, wide-ranging and well informed debate that confirms the distinguished reputation of your Lordships' House. I believe that the quality of the debate in this House is at its highest when noble Lords contemplate those issues that are the most challenging.

I begin by referring to the amendment tabled by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth. I fear that it has been entirely forgotten because of the other amendments. I remind noble Lords that it concerns school improvement partners having to understand fully the religious character of a school. I suggest that that is a modest amendment which deserves support.

Turning to the issue raised by my noble friend Lord Baker, this is a matter of great importance, not only to many noble Lords, but also to those individuals whose lives will be shaped by the choices that we make today. It is for those individuals that the Bill has been created and it is for them that these Benches support it. Our reasons have been much publicised in your Lordships’ House and in another place. The most important is our whole-hearted endorsement of the creation of greater choice of schools for parents. The provision of a good choice of schools for parents and children is the driving principle of the Bill, but I fear that this amendment could have the opposite outcome.

I come from a standpoint that does not fear the existence of strongly held faith or faith schools. I believe that the moral principles and teachings of great religious faiths can provide the moral compass that our society so often lacks. I feel confident that many noble Lords on all Benches agree. I do not think that the leaders of our faiths should feel that they have to apologise for the existence of faith schools or underplay their many fantastic achievements. We should encourage and support such schools, which our education system has done since 1944.

I say that because in debating this topic, there is a danger of overlooking the great contribution that so many of our faith schools make to excellence in education in this country. That has been touched on by many noble Lords. In recent days and weeks, many members of faith groups have said that faith in schools can be a great driver of the consideration, tolerance and positive outlook that is so important to the success of social cohesion. All noble Lords have agreed on the subject of inclusion, which was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland of Houndwood. The real moral hazard in our society is not the existence of teachers with faith and principles; it is the existence of moral relativists for whom anything is as valid as anything else.

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The amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Baker would, I fear, require new schools with a religious character to accept a centralised quota of25 per cent of pupils from other faiths in order to receive state funding. I say, “I fear”, because I am concerned that that quota would not work. My noble friend said that his amendment follows on from the Church of England’s policy but applies it to other schools. The Church of England reserves 25 per cent of pupil places for children of a different faith, but it does not close those places off if they are not applied for by pupils of a different faith. There is no compulsion in the Church of England’s position; rather, there is an allowance for children of other faiths or none. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth explained, the places would not be left empty.

In supporting the Church of England’s stance on this issue, I should add that the right honourable David Cameron MP has made it clear that he wants to see similar initiatives by other faith schools, as a matter not of uniform national rules but of social responsibility. I fear that the top-down approach of the imposition of a quota would upset the careful balance achieved by the Church of England and would dissuade other faith communities from following suit.

Parents who want their children to go to a school with a religious character could find their application being turned away on the grounds of the quota. Equally, those who do not wish for their children to attend such a school could find their choices limited by the fact that such a quota would affect their applications to other local schools, should they happen to live near a school with a religious character. I do not believe that my noble friend seeks any such effect. Indeed, I applaud the principle of his amendment. I understand that its driving force is a sincere and strongly held desire to achieve integration, inclusion and greater communication within different community groups.

The answer is not to create national rules that will discourage new faith-based institutions as part of the state system; it is to draw more of those institutions into the state system where they will teach the broad span of the curriculum and be subject to the same controls as all other schools. While I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Baker for raising this issue, and I applaud his courage in doing so, I am concerned about the methodology.

I am at an impasse. We have before us the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Baker, but I understand that the Minister is proposing to table an alternative amendment at Third Reading. I believe that there is a strong case for encouraging and providing the pathways for local communities to embrace social cohesion of their own volition and not imposing rigid central structures. But I regret that such compromises are being introduced so late in the stages of the Bill, and that there will be little opportunity to debate them.

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