HL Deb 17 July 1986 vol 478 cc1013-7

3.13 p.m

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the second Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows: To ask Her Majesty's Government what action they have taken in recent years as a result of the failure of many schools to comply with the provisions of the Education Act 1944 in respect of a daily act of worship.

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, the Government have made it clear, both in the White Paper Better Schools (Cmnd. 9469) and on many other occasions, that we look to the schools themselves, and to the local education authorities by which they are maintained, to ensure that the statutory requirements for daily collective worship are being met. Where complaints have been made about particular schools, my right honourable friends the Secretaries of State have undertaken a full investigation into the circumstances of each case.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House what percentage of schools are carrying out the statutory act of worship? Is it not a fact now that about half the schools are positively disobeying the law and are not carrying out these acts of worship? Can my noble friend also perhaps say what is the right route for a parent to take if she objects to a negligible act of worship in schools and to there being no religious teaching at all? Does she complain to the school governors, to the local education authority, or to the Secretary of State? Who is going to make sure that the Acts, as ordained by Parliament, are in fact obeyed?

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, if my noble friend has any examples of schools which are not carrying out the law, it would be a good thing if he were to raise them with my right honourable friend, who would be very interested indeed to learn of such cases.

Similarly, if a parent is worried that a school appears to be breaking the law in the matter of assembly, he or she should first raise the matter with the school and then, if necessary, with the local education authority. If the parent remains unsatisfied, he or she should complain to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, who has statutory powers under which he considers complaints and under which he can issue directions if he is satisfied that the duty has been breached or that a statutory function has been performed unreasonably.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, would the noble Earl agree that in a free country, where the right of legislators not to acknowledge the existence of any god or gods was recognised 102 years ago in the Affirmation Act 1884, it is illogical that the rights of school children as regards freedom of religion are still limited by statute in that social pressures are exerted on them to conform to religious ceremonies with which they may be fundamentally out of sympathy? Is it not therefore hardly surprising that so many schools are flouting an unenforceable statute?

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, I hope that schools are not flouting the statute, because the Government believe strongly that the statutory framework for religious education and collective worship has stood the test of time. Similarly, the 1944 Act provides that a pupil may be excused from attending collective worship at the request of his or her parents.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that he did not answer the question of my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing as to whether he had an estimate of how many schools are in fact flouting the law and not carrying out the daily act of worship?

The Earl of Swinton

No, my Lords, he has not; but I must say that the department receives very few complaints. For example, there were six complaints in 1985 alleging a breach of the statutory requirements for collective worship, and another three in respect of the giving of religious education.

Lord Denning

My Lords, is the Minister aware that it is open to any parent to go to the courts of law and ask for a judicial review so as to compel the Secretary of State and the local authorities to do their duty? Would it not be a good thing, in a way, if legal aid were provided for any parent to take action to enforce the law?

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, I understand that the parent has a right to go to the Secretary of State, who in turn can go to the courts. I think perhaps the Government are not yet so pushed that the Secretary of State would have to apply for legal aid.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, is it really reasonable in this day and age to try to invoke the majesty of the law to impose the reading of prayers in schools, which we cannot even persuade our bishops to accept?

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, I have a certain amount of sympathy with the noble Lord on the last point. I think that if some of the right reverend Prelates could make up their minds about whom we were to worship and why, it might help certain humble believers like me. At the same time it is the law of the land and, as the law of the land, it should be enforced.

The Lord Bishop of Lincoln

My Lords, is the noble Earl the Minister aware that neither the Churches nor the teachers would be at all happy in a situation where schools were brought to court? Is he further aware that both the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London, in conversations with the Select Committee on Education and Science in another place, have spoken of their wish for greater flexibility in the approach to the law—not with regard to the flexibility of their conviction that religion should be part of the total education experience, but with regard to the fact that the whole educational scene has changed greatly over these last 40 years and that many people, including the Churches, hope that this matter can be approached with greater flexibility than it is now?

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, I can only say that what the right reverend Prelate has said makes me more and more convinced that what I said in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Paget, was about right.

Viscount Tonypandy

My Lords, can the Minister inform me, despite the wishy-washy attitude of the right reverend Prelates on this question, whether Her Majesty's inspectors of schools are required to inform the Secretary of State as to whether the law is being fulfilled with regard to the daily act of worship? The right reverend Prelates speak for the Church of England, but they do not speak for everyone.

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, if Her Majesty's inspectorate found a school which appeared to be attempting to evade the requirement of the 1944 Act they would first raise the matter with the head teacher and, if necessary, with the local education authority concerned, and if neither approach was successful they would indeed draw it to the attention of my right honourable friend.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, is there not a real difficulty here? Without dissenting in any way from the spirit or the intention of the 1944 Act, or the intention of the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, is there not a very real difficulty in a number of schools in finding teachers on the staff who have either the convictions or the qualifications, or both, to conduct acts of worship; and is the Minister satisfied that schools are adequately staffed with this purpose in view?

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord has a very valid point, in that Section 30 of the 1944 Act makes it impossible to require teachers in county schools, and most teachers in voluntary controlled schools, to attend religious worship or to give religious instruction. Indeed, there are a great many teachers who do not wish to do this.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that this whole question is surrounded with an aura of uncertainty, that as a nation we tend characteristically to try to ignore it and hope that it will go away, and that this is not a very sensible or lasting attitude?

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, I do not think that it is. The Act lays down the duty and it should be carried out. Incidentally, we have just had an Education Bill go through this House and I do not think this matter was raised by any noble Lord in his Second Reading speech, or that any noble Lord felt so strongly about it.

Lord Sefton of Garston

My Lords, does the noble Earl the Minister agree that there is a large body of opinion in this country which would not view with any great alarm the abolition of religious education in schools, in view of the past and present association of religions with violence and terrorism—

A noble Lord


Lord Sefton of Garston

Perhaps the noble Lord who laughed would care to ask a question. Would the noble Earl consider liberalising the law in this regard and recommend his right honourable friend to take some action to change the law?

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, a number of people in this country have very odd views on very odd subjects.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, does the noble Earl regret, as I do, that certain elements of the Christian religion should in this House describe the Church of England as wishy-washy?

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, I am here to answer questions, not to make comments on what other noble Lords say.

Lord Ritchie of Dundee

My Lords, is the Minister aware that a great many head teachers in areas of high immigration need to assemble the whole school once daily, but have great difficulty in performing an act of specific Christian worship because the preponderance of the pupils are not Christian? In that case the parents do not send their children, so the head teachers will not have a complete assembly of the whole school.

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, the Act specifies that there must be an act of worship. It does not specify that it need necessarily be an act of Christian worship.

Lord Brockway

My Lords, may I ask a question of the noble Viscount the Leader of the House? Are we to have an opportunity to pay some tribute to the late Lord Boothby? Is it not a fact that he twice held office as Parliamentary Private Secretary to a Minister and that at the time of the Ministry of Fuel he was in effect a junior Minister? In addition to that—

Noble Lords


Lord Brockway

—did he not serve longer than anyone else in the two Houses of Parliament? Should we not recognise that?

The Lord President of the Council (Viscount Whitelaw)

My Lords, I was anxious to allow the noble Lord to have his say—although I fear it was slightly out of our normal procedure—because of the respect that I have for him, and indeed the respect that all of us in the House have for the late Lord Boothby, of whom he was speaking. There are very clear rules laid down on these matters which are normally respected, but I am sure, despite that, that the whole House would wish me to say how sorry it is at the death of Lord Boothby.

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