Striking a blow for long-standing liberties

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PRAYERS to seek divine guidance have been part and parcel of government business, local and national, probably since St Augustine landed in Thanet in 597 and Christianised the English.

I quite understand why this may not chime with secularists, but I think it’s important to explain why we need to hang on to this tradition.

In doing so I make no excuse for borrowing extensively from Eric Pickles’ unhesitating rejoinder in the wake of the Bideford ruling which, like me, many readers will have appreciated.

Swiftly demystifying the legal niceties he has stated plainly that the basis of the ruling was a narrow interpretation of section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972. In short, in response to a quibble raised by a member of the National Secularist Society, the court asserted that councils do not have an explicit power to hold prayers as part of the formal business at council meetings.

Let’s be clear where we stand. Christianity continues to play an important part in the culture, heritage and fabric of our nation, especially given that we have an Established Church governed by the Queen.

Perhaps because historically the right to worship has been a hard-fought British liberty deeply entwined with the political freedoms we take for granted, in this country we respect those of other faiths and those with none.

‘It is my view’, states Eric Pickles, ‘that this judgement was another example of the public sector marginalising faith by promoting an illiberal and intolerant secularism’. Particularly so as councils which hold prayers often feature those of other faiths, not only Christianity.

Enshrined in the Bill of Rights is the freedom of MPs to start the day’s business with prayer. And to shield that same privilege for councils, on February 17 the Secretary of State for Local Government signed a commencement order bringing into immediate effect the ‘general power of competence’ contained in the Localism Act 2011.

This enables councils to do anything that an individual could do unless it is specifically prohibited by law. It effectively turns on its head the status quo whereby local authorities have only been able to do those things the law specifically empowered them to do.

Eric Pickles sees it as ‘striking a blow for... long-standing British liberties over modern-day political correctness; and for Parliamentary sovereignty over judicial activism’. And I for one have no cavil with that.

FRANCIS MAUDE

MP for Horsham