Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Of course it is obscene when children of any age, in Palestine, Israel or any part of the world, are taught hate. Children should be taught tolerance, and we should encourage the nurturing of understanding of different cultures. We are critical of hate if it is taught in schools in any part of the world—Israel, Palestine or anywhere else—and condemn it.

Lord Dykes: Is the Minister aware of the many Israeli NGOs working hard for constructive relationships between both countries? Does she agree that public opinion is in place for real peace in both countries? The Israeli Government understandably want recognition but also, as an established state representative, must accept their international obligations. We had George Soros’s interview yesterday. Does the Minister agree that it is time for Israel to start at least partial withdrawal from some of the occupied territories, and reducing checkpoints and settlement blocks?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, the Government’s position is that both Israel and Palestine must adhere to their international obligations.

Cyprus: Universities

11.28 am

Lord Harrison: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In so doing, I declare a recent sponsored visit to Northern Cyprus.

The Question was as follows:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Lord Adonis): My Lords, the Government’s assessment, which is generally shared by other countries in the Bologna process, is that the application in question and those being considered from Kosovo, Israel and the Kyrgyz

19 Apr 2007 : Column 329

Republic do not meet the criteria for membership of the process, because those criteria require member countries to have ratified the European cultural convention. The decision on this issue will, however, not be taken until Ministers meet in May.

Lord Harrison: My Lords, does my noble friend not recognise that it is wholly reprehensible that the six excellent universities in Northern Cyprus are unable to join the Bologna process, which seeks to strengthen the ties among universities in the European family, simply on the say-so of the Greek Cypriot Republic of Cyprus—it, incidentally, has only one university—because it is considered that it speaks for the whole island of Cyprus. Will my noble friend redouble his efforts to understand the difficult issues here and give some recognition to the Turkish Cypriots, who at least voted in favour of the Annan peace plan and have had little reward for it?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, the decision that I have just referred to is not being made, as my noble friend Lord Harrison put it, on the say-so of the Greek-Cypriot Government; it is the consensus of all members of the Bologna process, because the criteria for the Bologna process, as set out by Ministers in the Berlin communiqué of 2003, is that countries party to the European cultural convention shall be eligible for membership of the European higher education area, and the applicant in question is not party to the convention.

Baroness Verma: My Lords, what consideration has the Minister given to the financial impact on the Turkish-Cypriot universities if they continuously face declined membership of the Bologna process?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, they will not face declined membership; they are not part of the Bologna process at present. However, a number of activities are included in the Bologna process, which is about the structure of degrees and the transparency of higher education systems, and they are open to universities in the north of Cyprus. For example, a regular programme of seminars is organised, giving information about the Bologna process and encouraging the exchange of information between members. Those are open not only to countries and universities that are part of the Bologna process but more widely. As it happens, I am informed that no universities in the northern part of Cyprus have taken part in those. However, there are full and ample opportunities for universities in the northern part of Cyprus to engage.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass: My Lords, does the Minister realise how disappointing his Answer is? Do the Government grasp the practical implications that inevitably arise from the persistent and malicious campaign by Greek Cypriots, who continue to pursue their terrorism of the 1960s and 1970s into the field of commerce, communication and, now, education? Is it seemly that this Government should turn a blind

19 Apr 2007 : Column 330

eye to that? Irrespective of the European Union’s mishandling of the accession of Cyprus, are the Government going to continue to acquiesce in such blatant and persistent abuses of human rights?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, to coin a phrase, I think that it would set a dangerous precedent were I to range so wide of the Question, which is about the Bologna process. As I think the House is aware, the European Union remains committed to lifting the isolation of the Turkish Cypriots through financial and direct aid. However, it is clear that this isolation will be fully lifted only in the context of a comprehensive settlement to reunite the island, and Her Majesty’s Government are fully committed to that outcome.

Noble Lords: My Lords—

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos): My Lords, there is plenty of time. Shall we hear from the Liberal Democrat Benches?

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, can the Minister give the House and the universities of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus any idea of the likely timescale for the consideration of their applications?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, the decision will be taken next month.

Lord Patel of Blackburn: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that this is an academic and human rights issue, and will Her Majesty’s Government help to install the fundamental human rights of 45,000 students so that these six universities would be allowed to take part in the Bologna process?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I am afraid that I do not agree with that. The Bologna process is a commitment by members to work towards greater transparency and comparability of degrees. It has nothing whatever to do with the recognition of universities or their qualifications. All countries can enter into the reforms that are part of the Bologna process, including those that are not part of it, and that includes universities in the northern part of Cyprus.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick: My Lords, does the Minister recognise that there are some who do not take as strong a view as my noble friend on the broader political issues but who still find the Minister’s response a little disappointing? Does he not recognise that the north of Cyprus is within the territorial limits of the Council of Europe and the European Union, so it is surely wrong that academic institutions there do not get the benefits of the Bologna process? Is there no way of decoupling the status issue, on which the Government’s position is clear—I sympathise with it—from the issue of the academic excellence of these institutions? Is there no

19 Apr 2007 : Column 331

way in which the meeting in May can not only reject a formal application but bring out some of the positive points being made about how these institutions can be part of the Bologna process?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, no one has made a greater contribution to seeking to resolve the Cyprus problem than the noble Lord, Lord Hannay. I defer to his great wisdom in these matters, and I will certainly draw his remarks to the attention of my honourable friend Bill Rammell, the Minister for Further and Higher Education. However, I stress again that formal participation in the Bologna process, which is the issue at stake, needs to be separated from the making of those reforms that go with it and ensure much stronger university systems. The opportunities and aid available through seminars, supporting material and so on to universities that wish to engage in that process are fully available to universities in the northern part of Cyprus.

Pensions Bill

11.36 am

Brought from the Commons; read a first time, and ordered to be printed.

Statistics and Registration Service Bill

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That it be an instruction to the Committee of the Whole House to which the Statistics and Registration Service Bill has been committed that they consider the Bill in the following order:

Clauses 1 to 23,Schedule 1,Clauses 24 to 43,Schedule 2,Clauses 44 to 57,Schedule 3,Clauses 58 to 70,Schedule 4,Clauses 71 to 73.—(Lord Davies of Oldham.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Religion: Non-believers

11.37 am

Lord Harrison rose to call attention to the position in British society of those who profess no religion; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, all my life, religion has all too frequently meant division and separation. At school, non-Anglicans were excluded from morning assemblies until prayers were said—an infelicitous image of separation lodged in the minds of young, impressionable boys. When my own children came of school age, my wife and I had to choose between sending them to the local church

19 Apr 2007 : Column 332

school or exporting them out of area and so separating them from their circle of friends in our closely knit local community. It scarcely rated as parental choice. When I came to this House, I once again found myself segregated as this Chamber—my workplace—is daily transmogrified into a church. We non-churchgoers troop in afterwards like guilty office workers returning from a quick inhalation of inspiration from the street outside. Perhaps those who wish to pray could copy our Muslim colleagues and use the private prayer room. Those are three examples of the regular experience of those of us who profess no religion and those non-churchgoers who are the silent majority.

It is time to speak up, especially as a more strident note is now sounding. The Anglicanism of my youth, more sedative than stimulant, now gives way to the harsher tones of those like the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York, who describes us as “illiberal atheists” and “aggressive secularists”. We learn that to combat this perceived intolerant public atheism, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Roman Catholic Church and the Jewish leader will meet this summer in a holy alliance to plot the counterstrategy—a less than ecumenical approach. Indeed, it seems to me that the religious today do not lack leaders but they lack leadership.

Religious belief continues on its long-term decline in Britain, as the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York recently acknowledged on the “Today” programme. However, his remonstration of us non-churchgoers as the authors of this steepening decline is neither warranted nor deserved. My debate today seeks to rebut those charges and to tabulate those areas of public life where we feel unacknowledged, unprized and under-represented. I hope, too, to ponder on what government and the wider community might do to reflect better this modern and more secular Britain that is developing, in particular in its public policies and institutions.

In that, I call for fair play. I invite our religious colleagues to debate how we can find common ground to establish a new consensus. I offer my own credentials in this quest for consensus by reminding your Lordships of the debate that I led two years ago highlighting the urgent need for the church, the state and those of religious beliefs and none to unite, perhaps on a more equal basis, to save Britain’s unparalleled architectural and cultural heritage revealed in the wealth of its parish churches and city cathedrals. I believe that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester, who is with us today, contributed to that.

I have unswervingly and religiously voted for the Government over the past seven years but I confess to qualms about their so-called faith agenda, which has the merit of being well meaning but whose consequences have all too often been ill directed. The Government fulfilled a 2001 manifesto promise to encourage co-operation between religious communities and themselves by publishing a paper entitled Working Together but their compass on promoting togetherness is too unsteady. They signally

19 Apr 2007 : Column 333

fail to canvass the views of non-churchgoers about religious matters despite the fact that, as the 2001 Home Office Citizenship Survey asserts, four out of five of us find that religious belief is not central to our self-identity.

Working Together is lax in the way in which it elevates obscure religious groups such as the Jains and the Zoroastrians to a significance way beyond their numbers. It too eagerly equates religious belief with specific ethnic communities, thereby overlooking the authentic non-religious views and needs of, say, our Chinese and Caribbean communities. It is seduced by using religion as a key to revealing other problems and opportunities. It passes over the myriad other groups and subsets who make up the mosaic of Britain and deserve to have their substantial and unique voices heard. Most egregious, though, is the omission of those for whom religion is either perfunctory or defunct—we the silent majority. The report compounds its diagnostic errors by proposing therapies that are dubious. The use of public moneys and resources to seek out and harvest the views of small, unrepresentative religious groups is problematic.

However, I am particularly perturbed by the Government’s companion paper, entitled Building Civil Renewal, which apparently encourages civil servants to dilute the strength of the secular voice,

That is neither wise nor even-handed. Groups such as the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association, of which I am a member, should be encouraged, not discouraged, from commenting on the development or the framing of relevant laws and policies. Had those groups been dispassionately asked and thoughtfully answered, some of the rough edges of legislation regarding religious hatred or religious schools might well have sat better with the very communities such laws are designed to serve.

However, let me turn to other, sometimes unintended incivilities visited on us, the non-churchgoers, arising from the muddled miasma of thinking about the role of religion in Britain today. Why on state occasions such as Remembrance Day is no representative from the non-religious community invited to attend the Cenotaph? How appropriate is it that the commemoration of those killed in London in the bombings of 7 July takes place in an Anglican cathedral, when such buildings have lost their once universal numinosity? Indeed, one of those murdered was a prominent secularist. Would a Christian be content with a humanist funeral if that was all that was on offer?

The various standing advisory panels set up by the Government to garner the views of religious groups forgo—indeed, avoid—the contribution that non-churchgoers might proffer. So too with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Religious Freedom Panel, bereft as it is of the humanist voice. Also, the chaplaincy services found in the armed services, in NHS hospitals and the Prison Service—important services offering comfort and advice—are provided exclusively by the church. Why should they not be

19 Apr 2007 : Column 334

extended beyond that? After all, our prisons are not overcrowded with regular churchgoers.

I harbour anxieties that the Government are devolving community services to religiously motivated groups and that that will further erode the clear principle that public funds should be disbursed in a non-discriminatory manner. A further discomfort is the fact that humanist marriage ceremonies—which I have had the privilege to be invited to and to preside over—are not recognised as a legal marriage. Why not? My view, for what it is worth, is that the churches should open up their premises to the wider community, who value the local church as a fine building redolent of the local community. Indeed, why should they not preside over humanist marriages?

My hair shirt itches on the question of public service broadcasting. “Thought for the Day” is a dusty desert in the oasis of political and current affairs reporting on the “Today” programme, but these days the even earlier “Prayer for the Day” strays beyond the bounds, as witness yesterday’s unchallenged criticism of the Government’s liberalising legislation on gambling. No one should be deaf to criticism, but I deplore the abuse of that unearned licence as the nation's reveille at 5.45 am.

The Government must redouble their efforts to ring-fence moneys provided for education in schools and other institutions, but that becomes an increasingly difficult task—indeed, a Sisyphean task—when a school is deliberately encouraged to develop a Christian ethos. I still believe in the principle of schools being charged with the clear task of imparting knowledge, skills and the ability to reason and think. Religion should be confined to the Sunday school. At the very least, religious education should restrict itself to the disciplines of history and the study of ideas. Neither school, hospital, prison nor public or community services should be metamorphosed into the vessels of promoting religion.

The Queen has done an outstanding job as our head of state, but is it not an unfair burden to place on her—or on her successors—that she should combine being head of state with the role of titular head of the church, especially given that belief in God is a very personal decision and not one that should be assumed or, for that matter, particularly expressed? I join those in the Anglican communion who believe that the Church of England should be disestablished. The Government should canvass views widely about the desirability and practicality of that.

I hope to hear the Minister’s views not only on that but also on those other areas of public policy. I hope her response will be positive and that there might be a consensual meeting between those who represent the religions and our own people, so that we can strike a way forward that is both profitable and modern for a modernising Britain. I beg to move for Papers.

11.50 am

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, is one of the more perspicacious Members of your Lordships’ House. Of

19 Apr 2007 : Column 335

course I accept that the anxieties and resentments that he has expressed so vehemently are real; they may even be widespread. I suggest, however, that there is at least one very important reason why he, and others who are like-minded, should take comfort. In this country of many faiths and none, our common aim must surely be to bring out the best in everyone. That involves accepting that for many, although of course by no means all, their best derives from their religious faith.

On the face of it, that proposition may seem dreamily na├»ve. Throughout history, and alas very much at this moment, religion has been and is at the root of terrible events and some of our most intractable problems. Religious fundamentalism, not least Christian fundamentalism, has a lot to answer for on the world stage. What many of us see as out-of-date theology holds back medical research, delays improvement in the well-being of the world’s poorest and so on.

It is therefore unsurprising that religion is often cast as a malign influence, as I think the noble Lord has cast it. It is cast as something to be stood up to by government, and government does indeed respond from time to time by picking a fight with religious bodies, even when, as occasionally happens, there is no real need to do so. Of course, sometimes the religious bodies get their way.

In a democracy, however, government is not mainly about dealing with organisations, although they are important. Ultimately, government is about individuals and enabling people of diverse backgrounds and points of view to live together harmoniously; to understand, co-operate with and support one another; to help one another to prosper; and to be open to helping others beyond our shores.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page