Monday, 23 April 2007

WASP Summary of the speech of Baroness Andrews for the Government: in the House of Lords 19th April 2007, Religion: Non Believers debate.

WASP Summary of the speech of The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government DCLG (Baroness Andrews): in the House of Lords 19th April 2007, Religion: Non Believers debate.
Full text of speech here in Hansard (or with WASP highlights here).

highlights Main Points & Key Points.
Action: WASP to Send a message to Baroness Andrews urging government implementation of debate proposals
WASP - Key Points of Baroness Wilcox speech:
  • challenge to disestablish the Church of England
  • religion v secularism history
  • Government role - respect freedom to believe or not believe
  • shared values
  • European Convention on Human Rights
  • Equality Act 2006
  • Public service tenders
  • Prostelytising - no support by Government
  • Faith Schools

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews):

I think that the response from around the House will have pleased him and those noble Lords who embrace a humanist and secularist point of view. I did not know that he was going to challenge me to disestablish the Church of England at the same time.

The Government must aim to let all voices be heard with equal respect, not least through the strengthening of the law to promote greater respect and social cohesion in all ways in our communities. We have heard that some consider that our society is becoming more explicitly, even aggressively, religious. On the other hand, we have heard the view expressed with equal conviction and eloquence that Britain is becoming more secular, more materialist and more intolerant.

religion is sometimes seen to cause and be at the root of conflict. I say right away that it is not belief that impacts so negatively on us or society more broadly, it is the actions and manifestations by small numbers of people who distort religious texts or hold fanatical views. It is essential that we make, understand and express those differences. let me just give an assurance to all noble Lords who spoke from the secular and humanist perspective. We fully acknowledge that the humanist tradition in this country has a long and honourable history and a positive contemporary role.

The impact of humanists has clearly contributed to the sum of human good and happiness in innumerable ways. Humanism has a proud history of almost three centuries.

The tension between belief and non-belief is profoundly historic 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? 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 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 has a responsibility to ensure that people who do not identify with a faith do not have fewer choices or are 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.

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. What does not help to achieve neutral space or mutual tolerance is 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.

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. 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 - protects both non-religious and religious beliefs.

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. 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.

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, which are not confined to faith-based voluntary organisations. There are 22,000 third-sector organisations. They are a key part of that sector and are best placed to provide public services, so they should be able 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.

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. 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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