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The noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, described the premise and evolution of humanism as an ethical choice. The impact of humanists has clearly

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contributed to the sum of human good and happiness in innumerable ways. Humanism has a proud history of almost three centuries. This debate is as much about our nature—possibly expressed, as it was by the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, as things that matter to us, or as the search, the instinct for spirituality or understanding mystery—as it is about the nature of our society, our roots, our culture and our futures.

The tension between belief and non-belief is profoundly historical and has shaped so much of the way we are today. From Dover Beach to Richard Dawkins, the ebb and flow of the contest about faith and religion is part of our evolving culture. We should reflect that after Dover Beach, which was published at the height of materialism in the Victorian age in 1851, came the anti-science movement of the 1880s and the search for spiritualism. So these fashions and understandings come and go and those tensions are at the heart not just of Christian traditions but of faith traditions generally.

My reason for exploring what lies behind and even beyond the debate, therefore, is to ask: what is the Government’s role in this? We must be clear, as noble Lords have been, that we must celebrate and respect the basic freedom to believe or not believe. Is it proper for government to be involved in what for all of us is primarily a private matter? For many centuries now, we have held that faith is a private choice. In large part, the Government have no role in changing or challenging that. However, the private realms described by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester, and the public squares, as others, not least the Archbishop of Canterbury, have pointed out, cannot be a neutral zone in matters of faith and morality because private faith sometimes has public implications, and the Government have a responsibility to ensure that the minority of people who do not identify with a faith are not, and do not feel, excluded from the mainstream political debate or uncertain about their rights. The Government certainly have a responsibility to ensure that people who do not identify with a faith do not have fewer choices or feel less able to live out their lives in the way in which they would choose, to contribute to the life of the nation, or to take opportunities wherever they arise.

The Government cannot always dictate the tone of the debate. Indeed, I listened with interest to what the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, said about this when he discussed his Bill. They can, however, moderate that tone. They cannot, and should not, seek to dictate the concerns expressed in and outside that debate. We have heard a lot about the notion of space today. We must make space for people, ideas and values from all traditions to contribute to that debate in a way that enables people to reflect a diversity of views, backgrounds and traditions. It does not help to achieve neutral space or mutual tolerance when the debate over faith and non-faith is conducted stridently or in an atmosphere in which it is only too easy to be misrepresented as an oppressed or misunderstood minority.

It is sometimes argued—the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester began to address

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this—that because it is difficult to argue with belief, we should not attempt to do so. That is wrong because strong faiths invite and welcome and are strengthened by argument. Argument is the way in which to expose misunderstandings and intolerance. This is an important debate because it also allows us to recognise shared values across a range of traditions—values that are shared by all faiths and by none: community, personal integrity, a sense of right and wrong, learning, wisdom, the love of truth, care, compassion, justice, peace, and respect for one another, for the earth and its creatures. Indeed, it was a shared act of reflection that inspired the Millennium Declaration. All that has become part of our political DNA. The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York talked about the mischief that comes from polarisation. We can see the reconciliation of freedom and law in the evolution of our laws in this country, from the Magna Carta to our recent laws on belief and freedom. It is a tradition of which we should be proud.

In celebrating those traditions, we also celebrate the significant impact that the Christian tradition of this country has had on the way in which those traditions and freedoms have been shaped. Every faith has its own articulate and distinctive tradition of charity, community and social responsibility. The fact that the churches and the faiths have been on the front line in no way denies what the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, said about the moral and ethical motivation of non-faith groups in the voluntary sector. She was quite right to say so. The noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, talked about the social gospel in relation to the floods in Llandudno. We could all cite traditions from our own backgrounds. The Society of Friends, for example, has traditionally worked for peace over many years and is a very proud holder of that banner.

The bedrock of our freedoms is a framework of law—a range of statutory and legislative provisions that protect those who profess a particular religion as well as those who do not. Many noble Lords, such as the noble Lords, Lord Goodhart and Lord Wedderburn, spoke about that framework when they talked about the Human Rights Act, which is the vehicle for the rights from the European Convention on Human Rights to take their place in our laws. Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights makes it quite clear that everyone has the right to think what they will and believe what they choose. I was grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, for her exposition of that, and to the noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, who challenged some of the aspects of that.

It is important to remember that Article 9 protects both non-religious and religious beliefs. It makes it clear that the right to express and to manifest one’s thoughts or beliefs is to be limited only when it is necessary to do so by law in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. The standard can be hard to achieve, but it is in that search and that tension that we find the things that enable us to recognise equal worth.

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As a Government, we have a good record of promoting those principles of equal treatment, most recently in the Equality Act 2006, which prohibits discrimination against persons because of their religion or belief. The Act specifically includes lack of religion or belief in the protected grounds. It offers protection on an equal footing to everyone, whether atheist, theist or humanist—to anyone who bases their life around a serious philosophical belief. Part 1 of the Act gives the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights as much scope to support people of no religious belief who believe that they have been discriminated against on that basis as much as any other person. I am delighted to say that the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, is on the commission upholding those standards. Changes have occurred that have created more space in which to reflect the changing cultures of our society, as reflected in our important rites of passage. The courts already recognise that not all people wish to take an oath on a holy book before testifying and can ask to affirm. People are no longer forced to get married in a religious building or a registry office. The number of humanist funerals is increasing significantly. Those changes reflect a society that is asking for more choice.

We had the beginnings of a debate about broadcasting. I hope that my noble friend Lord Harrison feels that his opinions on the “Today” programme have redressed the balance of that programme somewhat. I was very grateful for the explanation offered by the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, of the influence that humanist groups have had on the Communications Act 2003 and the expectation that there will be a different, more expansive attitude. I hope that that will answer some of the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, but perhaps not. The freedoms that are reflected in the way in which we commission, fund and regulate our public services are really important. As the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, said, the question is, “What do you need?”, not, “Who will provide this?”. That is the crucial point.

I listened hard to what the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, said about the importance of all organisations that tender for public services. They must satisfy the conditions laid down by the local authority providing that service. The Government believe that the third sector is a vital component of a modern and healthy society. There are millions of acts of support, help, co-operation and selflessness every day. They are not confined to faith-based voluntary organisations, but there are 22,000 of those and they are a key part of that sector and are best placed to provide public services, so they should be able to bid for contracts on a level playing field, whether they are religious or secular.

Let me reassure my noble friend Lord Harrison that the Government do not fund or support the proselytising of organisations; they support the provision of strong, local services for all. Let me also address the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, and my noble friend Lord Harrison

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when they referred to the document, Working Together, which was published in 2001, and the work that we have done with religious groups to build a better understanding of public policy. This was not about giving privilege to religious groups; it was about being able to access and tap into an important resource—reaching into communities that are elusive and very hard to reach. It has encouraged faith groups to have more purposeful dialogue with government. I am pleased to say that the British Humanist Association agrees that the approach is coherent, and has acknowledged that it was not an exclusive process.

We also had the beginnings of a debate about faith schools. For some parents, faith schools will be the answer; for others, they will not. I listened to what my noble friend Lord Harrison said about the difficulty of finding a non-faith school. I have taken the best possible advice about this, but I am aware of no areas of the country where there is no choice in that respect. It is important that faith schools are not held responsible for ethnic or social segregation, but it is equally important to note—we are clear about this—that although we want parents to have choice, we also want to ensure that schools bring together children of different cultures and backgrounds. The Education and Inspections Act 2006 placed a duty on the governing bodies of schools in England to promote community cohesion. Ofsted will report on that contribution, which is an extremely important step.

Let me, in conclusion, reach into the wider work of government and the wider debate in promoting greater tolerance and community cohesion. How can we promote those shared values and perceptions which bring people together in common purpose rather than drive them apart? We are working across all sectors to create a shared sense of belonging in our country, to tackle racism and extremism through the work of the independent Commission on Integration and Cohesion and to consider how all communities can be empowered to improve cohesion. Faith-based and non-faith-based organisations play key roles in that. We support the non-faith organisations, including 49 which will shortly receive more than £600,000 to promote community cohesion. Among them will be the British Humanist Association.

I can give my noble friends Lord Harrison and Lord Graham the assurance that they seek: we consult with and involve non-faith groups whenever we can. My noble friend Lady Whitaker requests that all local regional and national bodies convened by my department on matters of religion, belief and community cohesion should have humanist representation. But she will be aware that the British Humanist Association was part of the religion and belief stakeholder group created by us. The British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society are active stakeholders in the development of the provisions of Part 2 of the Equality Act. The BHA acknowledges on its website the work that it does with the Government. We have a very rich and diverse range of organisations. The reason we do not engage with them all in the same way is not an exclusive choice, it is sheer pragmatism.

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In this very positive, helpful and fascinating debate, we have explored some of the most profound issues that make us what we are and make our society what it is. I have stressed the role of government in creating space for debate, for mutual tolerance, for the harmony that we spoke of in the beginning and for all to live freely in the private realm while taking care in proper public duties in order to protect all members of society. We are a tolerant and inclusive society. We must build on, expand and celebrate those traditions. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Harrison and all noble Lords who spoke for the opportunity to explore those issues.

2.02 pm

Lord Harrison: My Lords, it is my happy duty to thank all noble Lords, including the Minister, who have taken part in this debate, but I should report that the Church of England, fleet of foot as ever, has sought to suborn me already. Even as we were speaking, I opened my mail to discover that I have been invited to the national prayer breakfast. The final blandishment is that Members of the House of Lords are not charged for breakfast.

I thank sincerely everyone, particularly those who spoke in sympathy with me, but also those who oppose me. I especially thank my friend—I do call her my friend—the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for recounting her views and thoughts, and for reminding me that I, too, take sustenance from my family in this regard. The noble Lord, Lord Joffe, reminded me that although my wife and I are atheists, my wife has tremendous respect for her Aunty Florence who worked hard with Bishop Tutu in South Africa and for the Church of England. Even now when we visit churches, as we often do, to admire the architecture, my wife will light a candle on behalf of her beloved Aunty Florence.

I was very disappointed that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester gave the best speech. It was wise, constructive and helpful and I, too, have puzzled over those Papers for which I request. On a serious note, I look forward to taking up his challenge that we should shuffle papers together to try to build something constructive to demonstrate each point of view that has been expressed today. However, despite the right reverend Prelate’s honeyed words, I have to refuse his blandishments not to withdraw the Motion and therefore not to call for papers. Even were he to offer me a big breakfast, I now beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

Higher Education and the Economy

2.05 pm

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe rose to call attention to the economic impact of higher education institutions; and to move for Papers.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, it is a great pleasure to open this debate on the economic impact of higher education institutions. It is very good to see so many Members of this House connected with

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universities here today and prepared to speak this afternoon. I know that other noble Lords would very much have liked to be here. I am particularly pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, who is celebrating the 10th anniversary of his famous report, is here. As many noble Lords will know, universities have changed dramatically over the past 10 or 20 years. From being seen as ivory towers for the few, they are now perceived as engines of change in the economy and the means of effecting real social change. Who, 10 or 20 years ago, would have thought of our universities in hard-nosed commercial terms? Yet now, higher education is recognised as a substantial industry in its own right with a significant impact on the UK economy.

According to a recent study by Universities UK on the economic impact of higher education institutions, in 2003-04, higher education had a total output of just over £45 billion. Education and education-related services are our fastest-growing export earner and have already eclipsed food, tobacco, drink, insurance, ships and aircraft. Giving these figures, I should declare my interest as chief executive of Universities UK.

Clearly, higher education exists for many purposes. Its prime purpose is the sharing of knowledge and the development of minds. Today, however, I want to celebrate this new and very successful dimension of economic impact. It is worth pointing out that higher education institutions are also employers in their own right. Many institutions are the major employers within their localities and the wider region. For example, more than 280,000 full-time equivalent jobs are provided by institutions themselves, which amounts to just over 1 per cent of the whole workforce. Noble Lords will also be interested to know that a further 300,000 jobs across the whole of the UK are created through connections with higher education institutions.

International students bring in £3.6 billion, of which £2 billion is from fees. UK universities are able to attract large numbers of students from overseas because of the continuing international demand for education in English and, of course, the reputation of UK universities in research and teaching. We must not forget that our international students also provide a valuable cultural mix on our university campuses and in many cases, on return to their home country, act as excellent ambassadors for the UK.

Much of that is well understood by Members of this House, but the contribution of our universities goes beyond those very direct impacts. The UK’s higher education institutions are vital to addressing many of our country’s long-term challenges. I want to link the diversity of our sector with the five major strategic challenges identified by the Treasury as the context for the current Comprehensive Spending Review. I shall list them in no particular order—namely, an increase in an ageing population, cross-border competition and increasing globalisation, increasing levels of information and technology and a more knowledge-intensive-based economy of goods and services, global conflict and international

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terrorism, and increased pressure on natural resources and the threat of climate change.

Universities have a role in meeting every one of those challenges. In relation to an ageing population, higher education will help to equip the UK workforce to be more productive for longer. Our universities are already catering for an increasingly diverse population. Currently, 30 per cent of full-time undergraduate students are mature. Some 39 per cent of all students study part time, and 90 per cent of part-time undergraduate students are over 21, with around 20 per cent in their forties and 15 per cent now aged over 50. Many of these students are undertaking study while in full-time work through continuing professional development, and indeed through work-based learning. I think the House will agree that these figures show how far higher education entry has now moved away from the traditional 18 to 21 year-old student studying for a three-year undergraduate degree away from home.

On the second challenge, increasing levels of cross-border competition and globalisation, the Chancellor of the Exchequer acknowledged the increasing importance of higher education as an export in his speech at the Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, China. He said:

I think that many Members of the House would agree with him.

On the third challenge, could any noble Lord not be aware of the rapidly expanding markets in China and India, which between them produce 4 million graduates a year? Universities are key to staying ahead of these markets by invention and innovation and by ensuring that we equip our population to work smarter. That means that we need to expand higher education, and we need to provide public investment to ensure that expansion is of high quality. The expansion of higher education will help to plug the growing skills gap and, as the noble Lord, Lord Leitch, stated in his recent report, the UK should be looking at increasing skills in the workforce. He recommended that 40 per cent of the workforce should be qualified to level 4 and above. That must be broadly the right ambition, extending as it does the current government target that focuses on 18 to 30 year-olds.

I also know that Her Majesty’s Opposition have similar views on this, as the shadow higher education Minister in another place, Boris Johnson, has also said that the UK should be looking at a participation rate higher than 50 per cent. Collaboration with further education is essential in this regard, and while I may have had my differences with the Minister on the Further Education and Training Bill, which is currently passing through another place, retaining those progression links from further education to higher education is essential if we are to ensure that

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we have the right high-level skills to cope with the demands of employers and the workplace in the 21st century.

I turn now to the challenge of global conflict and terrorism, the fourth of the Treasury’s priorities. Universities have a particular role in addressing this problem. World-class research departments in both the social sciences and the sciences are essential to combating and understanding that threat. Much of their work influences thinking in the police, the security services and the Armed Forces.

The fifth and final Treasury priority will resonate with many across the House. It is climate change and the threat to natural resources. In my view, the only way to address the enormous challenge of climate change is through rapidly developing technologies that allow us to use fewer natural resources more efficiently and increase the amount of energy from renewable sources. Universities are already at the forefront of this agenda by providing some of the solutions through research and innovation, and many university campuses themselves are going green by introducing environmental targets to reduce emissions, using more energy-efficient lighting, reducing paper use and so on.

Our universities make a substantial contribution to the UK economy and to our ability to meet the major strategic challenges of the future, but it cannot be taken for granted. In order to deliver on that potential, we need the right level of continued investment, as so many of the contributions to this spending review make clear. I believe that the higher education sector is great value for money and certainly punches above its weight, but in order to continue to do that it needs continued investment. There is no doubt that higher education finances have improved since the turn of the century and have improved further with the advent of variable fees. However, to build on this position, we need in particular three main things, and I should like to draw them to the Minister’s attention.

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