HL Deb 24 January 1995 vol 560 cc968-70

2.47 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easingtonasked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they intend to change the law requiring daily religious worship in schools.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government have no plans to change the law. The daily act of collective worship helps to establish a positive ethos in a school and makes an important contribution to pupils' spiritual and moral development. The existing legal requirements give schools considerable flexibility in the organisation and content of collective worship.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, does the Minister accept that most secondary schools and a number of primary schools do not hold daily religious assemblies? Therefore, in spite of what the Minister says, they are breaking the law. Will he agree, first, that the main reason for this situation is that there is inadequate space in many schools to hold such assemblies? Secondly, does he accept that there is also a legitimate reluctance on the part of many teachers to participate in such assemblies? And, thirdly, is he aware that the faith of many pupils in this country these days does not permit them to take part in such assemblies, which have to be of a mainly Christian character? How can the Government tolerate such a situation? Is not reform long overdue?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, to answer broadly the noble Lord's latter questions, there is a great deal of flexibility which will accommodate all those problems. In relation to the earlier matter, in the past few years we have seen around five schools which were not performing properly in this area. All those situations were resolved.

The Lord Bishop of Ripon

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the General Synod Board of Education—a policy-making body of the Church of England—is not at this moment pressing for a change in the law although it is consulting widely on the issue? In view of what the Minister said regarding the significance of the act of collective worship in pupils' spiritual and moral development, does he agree that ill-prepared and ill-conducted acts of worship are not conducive to those aims? Will he further accept that training is necessary for heads, for members of staff, and for those who visit schools to conduct such acts of worship, and that therefore the resources for such training should be found?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, to continue my practice of answering the last question first, we believe that perhaps the best way of approaching the issue is for schools to involve local professionals in this job. With regard to the other remarks made by the right reverend Prelate, we shall look with interest at any decisions which the Church may reach.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, I agree entirely with the Minister on the need for the spiritual and moral development of pupils in our schools. However, does he not consider it a violation of the United Kingdom's obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to impose an act of predominantly Christian worship on schools where most of the children are Moslem, Hindu or Sikh?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, we do no such thing. The rules allow a great deal of flexibility to a school. If it finds itself in the situation where the majority of its pupils, or even a substantial minority of its pupils, are not of the Christian faith, it has the ability to adapt its worship appropriately.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, would the Minister not agree that, despite what has been said about policy in this country, the limits of bleak 19th century materialism have been starkly exposed in recent years? Would he not further agree that pupils in schools have never been in greater need of being shown the values of spiritual and moral aspects of life and what Rudolf Otto once referred to as, the human response to the mysterium tremendum"? In that connection, I wonder whether I might ask the Minister to take note of a publication which was written by Clive Andrews a few months ago on behalf of city technology colleges which—with all their emphasis on science and a skills-based curriculum—have nonetheless insisted on an enthusiastic presentation of the spiritual values.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I am very pleased to hear what the noble Lord says.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the present law was decided on after full discussion in both Houses of Parliament only a few years ago and that no general opinion has formed so far expressing a desire or need for it to be changed?

Lord Lucas

Yes, my Lords.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, it is understandable that the established Church should be in favour of the present situation. But is it not the case that the established Church is not now the Church of the majority of the people of this country? Therefore, if one were to consult not only the established Church but also people who attend other churches or do not go to church at all, might one not get a different answer?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, as my noble friend said so well a moment ago, we discussed this matter at length quite recently. I believe that we should stand by our decision at that time.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, whatever one's faith, denomination or background, one cannot understand the culture of the English, at least, without reading the Bible in the King James version?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, my father would have agreed with that.

Lord Peston

My Lords, this is really not the time for what would be an extremely fascinating debate on all these matters. But did I misunderstand the noble Lord? Did he say that only five schools are failing to comply with the legislation? The overwhelming evidence is that between 40 and 90 per cent. of schools are not complying with the legislation. Does the noble Lord's department believe that only five schools are not complying because it has asked only five schools? It is quite a serious matter.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, the mechanism by which these matters come to our notice is that if parents are dissatisfied with the worship in schools they bring that to the attention of the governors. If parents are dissatisfied with what the governors propose, the parents can bring that to the attention of the LEA. Only if that stage fails does it come to our notice.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, perhaps I may—

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I am aware that there are still two very interesting Questions to come. Perhaps we should go on to the next one.