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Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, in his argument the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, has just cited

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the statement that religion is not the business of government. He stated that as being the statement of one of the Lords who sat in judgment in looking at these questions.

It is precisely because I subscribe to that view that I support the amendment which the noble Baroness, Lady Young, has so eloquently and articulately moved this evening. I believe that these clauses as they stand have opened up the argument again about the relationship between Church and state, which had previously been settled. Therefore, I believe that this is an unnecessary argument which has been precipitated because insufficient forethought has been given to the convention as it now stands and as we are about to incorporate it. The Government do not need to be reminded that in politics perception is all. In many ways that is the golden rule of politics.

I was very struck by an editorial comment in this week's The Universe, the Catholic weekly newspaper. The headline states,

    "A threat to our freedom".

It speaks about today's legislation. The editorial says,

    "The implications of this [Bill] could be devastating, hitting at the very fabric of religious freedoms that have been won with blood and anguish over the centuries".

The editorial concludes,

    "In simple terms we live on the very brink of an inconceivable terror--the total state control of our religious institutions".

That is the perception of many people outside your Lordships' House. It is those fears that the Government need to allay today if the golden rule of politics that perception is all is to be dealt with properly.

In the mid-1980s, when I was in another place, I helped to found the Jubilee Campaign, a human rights organisation which campaigns for religious liberties worldwide. Working alongside organisations such as Canon Michael Bordeaux's Keston College, we highlighted individual cases of discrimination and the institutional persecution of believers by oppressive and authoritarian governments.

I was particularly struck that the former Soviet Union had one of the longest and technically admirable charters of human rights ever promulgated. As we all know, reality was very different from that. Along with many others and with the former Chief Rabbi, the noble Lord, Lord Jacobovits, I visited Moscow during that period and met Jewish believers who had been persecuted because of regulations inserted into their state laws that allowed the circumscription of religion.

In the Ukraine I met a bishop who had spent 17 years in prison for his faith. I met the chairman of the Committee for the Defence of the Ukranian Catholic Church, Pavlo Vasylk. He spent 18 years in prison. There was a young priest who had spent six months at Chernobyl clearing radioactive waste as a punishment for being caught celebrating the liturgies in the open. We forget too easily that in this century millions upon millions of Jewish and Christian people have died for their faith which is more than in any of the preceding centuries. Yet for over 70 years Jews and Christians

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were systematically persecuted and religious autonomy was outlawed while we in the West did very little about it.

Autonomy is at the heart of the issues which this House has been debating today. By defining "public authority" as a body which performs "public functions", the Bill before your Lordships' House today strikes at the very heart of religious liberty and practice in Britain. There are any number of theological, disciplinary, liturgical and other religious practices which the House may disagree with, but which are matters for the adherents of those religions. Divorce is one very good example. For instance, the Catholic Church does not admit remarriage after divorce. The noble Earl, Lord Perth, has reminded us of Thomas More, a former holder of the office of Lord Chancellor and Speaker of the House of Commons and, happily, not a Cardinal. He said that he was,

    "the King's good servant, but God's first".

He went to the block rather than resile on his belief that the King had no right to dispose of his wife and to remarry. Imagine similar circumstances today.

Under the terms of this Bill the aggrieved protagonists would simply claim their civil rights of remarriage in a church and the heirs of Bishop John Fisher and Thomas More would once again be arraigned in court when they refused to comply. Despite what the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, has said this evening, when a churchman of the Catholic Church performs a marriage in a church it is a public matter; it is not a private question. The spectacle of dissenting clergymen and other believers being fined or imprisoned clearly cannot be what the Government have in mind.

The House should take careful note of the American experience where judicial interference, spurred by the litigious excesses of politically correct groups, has led to extraordinary intolerance. For example, in Missouri a fourth-grade student has been disciplined and subjected to ridicule by his school for attempting to say a private and voluntary prayer before eating his lunch in the school cafeteria. In New York the authorities have attempted to stop two groups of orthodox Jews from gathering for religious purposes. In Hawaii two Buddhist nuns have had to file law suits to be allowed to continue long-standing religious worship in their own homes.

Article 9 may guarantee the right to defend religious liberty, but religious freedom will no longer be a right; it will be an argument that needs to be proven in each and every case. This will be a lawyer's paradise, and a believer's nightmare. Clause 6, as it currently stands, opens the way to endless litigation and debilitating campaigns against the Church by single issue groups and secular institutions. This is not alarmism. Already in the European Union in Bavaria attempts have been made to force Roman Catholic schools to remove the crucifix from their walls.

When one decides to be confirmed in a church it is a personal decision. Words like "private" and "public" are secondary and subservient to the personal nature of that decision. Adherents to a particular faith may not under British law force their views on the majority. Some of

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the spurious arguments deployed earlier illustrate the force of what I say. Anyone can today be prosecuted under the criminal law if he or she does something that is criminal. No one seeks to place the Church above the law. Similarly, no one, be he churchman or not, may force his views on the majority, although he may like William Wilberforce seek to persuade the majority of the worth of his views. That arrangement has served us in this country extremely well. I believe that it is extremely ill-advised to impose these new conditions.

This Human Rights Bill comes at the end of a decade in which we have seen a flurry of charters setting out citizens' rights. I believe that more than 40 have been legislated for in the past two Parliaments. I believe that it would be of greater use if we were more interested in the duties, responsibilities and obligations of the citizen. To attack the very religious leaders who have sought to redress the imbalance between rights and responsibilities demonstrates how little has yet been understood of what makes for a healthy civil society. I commend the amendments of the noble Baroness to the House this evening.

Earl Russell: My Lords, the right reverend Prelate the Lord Bishop of Ripon was quite right to remind the House of the distinguished record of the Church in matters of human rights. He was too modest to say that he himself in the course of the passage of the Asylum Bill had made a notable contribution to that end. The noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, might have said the same for his Church which made an equally distinguished contribution on that occasion. Listening to him, I recalled the extent to which the determination of religious conscience has been one of the determining forces of liberty. At the same time, when the noble Lord mentioned Thomas More--Sir or Saint, whichever--he reminded us that in times past religious liberty was in greater danger than it is today. In his example of the Catholic marriage I believe that he mistook what was intended by the words "public authority". I grant that a Catholic marriage is in no sense a private matter. It is in the face of the congregation, but the words "public authority" mean "as an emanation of the state"; in the phrase used by my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill, "the Church as state". In a Catholic marriage that function is fulfilled by the registrar, not the priest. The action of the registrar would come under the European convention, but my noble friend is surely right, that the action of the Catholic priest does not.

The Bill and the convention can affect the Church only when it is acting as an organ of the state--as an exercise of state authority. I am reminded if we look around the Continent of Europe--I remember for example, visits to places as diverse as Uppsala, Cologne, Chartres, and Toledo--that the place of religion in the life of many other countries in Europe is very central indeed. I am not aware of any cases in which the European convention has in fact caused any great damage to the rich importance of religion in the life of those countries, or to the beauty of many places that I am proud to have had the chance to visit.

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According to Article 9 of the convention, there is a clause defending freedom of thought, conscience and religion; and freedom for people to manifest religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice, and observance. As my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill said on Second Reading, one clause of the convention must be construed in context with another. Therefore any case arising under the convention would have to be construed in the light of Article 9 of the convention, so that very much diminishes the risk that some noble Lords have seen.

I listened with care to the noble Baroness, Lady Young, threatening us with the danger--if I may so put it--of rights as yet unborn, like the kings alarming Macbeth at the end of the banquet. I was reminded--not for the first time--listening to speeches from her Benches of what was said to my great grandfather when he introduced the great Reform Bill in 1832. The Conservatives told my great grandfather that the Bill would lead to democracy. My great grandfather said that they were completely wrong. The Conservatives were right on that point. Where they were wrong was in believing that it would lead to disaster if they were right.

People do change their ideas. If my great grandfather had been told that the process that he was setting in motion would lead to the sight of women in Parliament, he would have been horrified, but his son and daughter-in-law would have been completely delighted. Our ideas of what is horrifying change with our concept of rights. Since the one thing changes necessarily in step with the other, the terrors are perhaps not quite as great as we make out.

Since we are dealing with public authorities, Amendment No. 26 is substantially redundant. It is not my understanding that receipt of public money turns one into a public authority. It is also a crucial point that the Bill is going to affect only those Churches which act as organs of the state. It does not affect what used, in 17th century parlance, to be known as a "gathered Church". Now that we have so little establishment of religion, most Churches are, in practice, gathered Churches, however much they would like to be something else.

I cannot see how the Roman Catholic Church, for example, can be regarded as a public authority in this country. I am also extremely concerned, as are others, by the prospect of the Secretary of State deciding what are authorised religions. I shudder to think what that might have done to the history, for example, of the Society of Friends.

I am also well aware of the dangers of setting out to define a religion. I remember that during debates on the poll tax in 1988 it was suddenly realised that it was impossible to impose it on members of religious orders who, of course, had no property. During dinner with one of the right reverend Prelates, I discussed the problem of defining a religion. We had a most enjoyable conversation, but we reached no conclusions.

The problems are considerable. I remember when I arrived in California in 1977 obtaining a local paper and reading about the activities of an organisation which claimed freedom under Article 1 of the US Constitution because it was a religion. Its main business appeared to

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be the distribution of drugs. Its way of dealing with those who offended its discipline was to put rattlesnakes through their letterboxes after cutting off the rattle! If we set out to defend everything which calls itself a religion we shall lead ourselves into considerable difficulties.

If a body wants to be a public authority it accepts the convention; it is a necessary consequence. I do not believe that the danger is great. If it does not want to come before the scrutiny of the convention, the alternative is not to be a public authority. It is as simple as that.

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