Martin Hislop takes a look at the Queen’s Speech and the government’s legislative programme

Over 45 new bills were trumpeted in the Queen’s Gracious Speech as part of the agenda for Labour’s historic third term in office. Aspirations for continued opportunities in education, employment and enterprise, together with renewed commitments to enhance equal opportunities at home and abroad, provided the glittering thread that held together the fabric of the Emperor’s new clothes. Reform and Respect are to be the twin themes in what many see as the Consul’s last hurrah. As is so often the case, the devil is in the detail.

Leading off debate in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister said, ‘There is a lot to do, but much progress has been made in the last eight years. The Queen’s Speech shows this Government’s renewed energy, purpose and ambition to build on the achievements so far, to move faster and further in the direction the country wants in our public services, in reform of the welfare state, in tackling crime and anti-social behaviour. It is what this country voted for.’

Much has been said and written about the disparity between the popular vote for the Labour Party, and the legitimacy for this so-called popular mandate. 62% of those who bothered to vote did not vote for a Labour Government.

The relentless juggernaut of reform will strike a despondent chord amongst many, especially those who work in, or are reliant upon, the public sector services. Not because they oppose good practice, or value for taxpayers’ money, but because those who serve on the front line, or use its services, have grown cynical of politicians who preach devolved decision-making and community stake-holding, but who offer centralized managerial dictats, worthy of any number of European bureaucratic empires of the political dinosaur age.

Pressure on teachers

Take schools policy, for example, under the successive Blair Governments. Any of us who serve as school governors will have first-hand experience of the ever-increasing dead weight of directives, guidelines, strategies and targets that flood out from the minions of whoever happens to be the Education Secretary. Blairite acolytes parade themselves before the media as successive schools ministers and incant the New Labour litany of choice, improved standards and school-focused delivery while hard-pressed teachers struggle to conform to their ever-changing curriculum edicts.

Local Education Authorities are to be abolished (the name has already changed to Children’s Services Authority in many boroughs) and headteachers now face the nightmare of marshalling already stretched resources, so as to deliver on the latest fad to come out of Whitehall – ‘wrap around care’.

It is to be hoped that during the life of this Parliament the various diocesan boards of education will abandon the acquiescence that has characterized official Church of England responses to these endless interventionist and questionable educational policies, in favour of a coherent defence of hard working teachers and a real school based strategy for education.

Trade justice

Britain’s assumption of the presidency of the EU and chairmanship of the G8 group of nations will highlight issues of global concern. Christian Aid continues its campaign to persuade the UK government that, to end poverty and protect the environment, we need trade justice – not free trade. They see the need to change the rules that govern international trade, so that poor countries have the freedom to help and support their vulnerable farmers and industries.

To do this the UK government needs to support trade justice not free trade. And they need to use their influence to call for change within the international institutions that govern trade policy. It will be interesting to see just how far the Blair Government uses its crucial presidency to pursue those aspirations outlined in their Manifesto, alluded to in the Queen’s Speech and so actively sought by the likes of Christian Aid.

Religious hatred offence

One specific piece of legislation was contained in the Queen’s Speech that once again will excite interest. This is the determination of the Home Secretary to make it a criminal offence to use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour if you intend to sir up religious hatred, of if your conduct ‘is likely to stir up’ religious hatred. This would bring incitement to religious hatred in line with the existing offence of incitement to racial hatred. A convicted person could face up to seven years in prison.

Many of those concerned for freedom of expression are concerned at this proposal. Delivering the Margaret Howard Memorial Lecture in Oxford on 19 May, the barrister David Pannick qc delivered a powerful attack on this proposed measure.

Mr Pannick argued that criticizing religious beliefs is no basis for imposing criminal convictions. He set out the difference between race and religion as a basis for such legislation. To make hostile comments about a person’s race is to criticize the individual’s innate characteristics – something that people cannot change and which says nothing about how they act. Because such comments insult a person’s common humanity, Mr Pannick asserted it is right that they should be restricted by law. To comment, however, on an individual’s religion is to criticize the conduct of an institution to which that person chooses to belong.

Mr Pannick believes that if the government’s proposal were to become law, novelists, playwrights and comedians would need legal advice before strongly criticizing members of the Roman Catholic Church for failing to take adequate steps against paedophile priests. The same would apply if they criticized Jews for Judaism’s treatment of women whose husbands refuse to give them a religious divorce; or for Islam’s intolerance of ‘infidels’ and any apparent discrimination against women and homosexuals.

Experience already demonstrates that uncertainty in so vague a piece of legislation as the Human Rights Act and the raft of anti-discrimination legislation has given rise to ludicrous restrictions on presumed freedom to religious belief and practice, ranging from the heavy handed attempts to remove Christian symbols and prayers from government funded homeless shelters to the PC police and the avoidance of Nativity scenes in public places or on Red Cross Christmas cards.

Euthanasia debate

But at the outset I argued the devil is to be found the detail. While this is indeed true about the specific impact of any of the pieces of government legislation contained in the Queen’s Speech, there remains much which occupies the attention of any Parliament, which is not exclusively of the government’s making, or if it is then it is not to be found in any manifesto or legislative programme.

Individual members or peers still have the opportunity to influence the public agenda through legislative initiative or parliamentary debate. One such area that should be of vital concern to Christians is that of euthanasia, and the relentless media-driven push for changes to the law to enable what is euphemistically described as the ‘right to die with dignity’.

Barely a week goes by without somewhere in the media the pro-euthanasia message being preached. In April 2005 the House of Lords Select Committee on the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill published its report. Whilst not calling for the legalisation of euthanasia, it did urge Parliament to debate the issues raised at an early opportunity.

The is hardly a family in the country, who have not been put through the agony of a loved one’s terminal illness, and yet the life and death of Pope John Paul II surely called us all to reflect upon the sanctity of human life, and equally importantly the Church’s responsibility to teach the faithful to prepare for a good death.

Deep and emotive issues and values are called into play here, but one has to hope and pray that Parliament is not swept into legislative change without a full and comprehensive examination and debate of the fundamental issues, that may give rise to changed modus operandi – that for some individuals will be irreversible!

Bishops’ duties

The Church of England has a role to play in the legislative process by virtue of its 26 bishops who sit in the House of Lords. A role affirmed by leaders of other faith communities during the recent and limited reform process for the Second Chamber. It is to be hoped that our bishops might be somewhat more assertive in the discharge of that role during this Parliament.

There have been worthy contributions by individual prelates during debates on such issues as Embryo Research, Overseas Aid, Civil Partnerships, and Euthanasia but it has to be said that the overall attendance and voting record leaves much to be desired.

It seems that the House of Bishops has adopted in practice a regime of rostered participation and ‘lead bishops’ on various topics. Now of course the primary function of a bishop is not to spend hours idling away his time in Trollopian fashion in the House of Lords. Nevertheless it is somewhat disconcerting to note the regularity with which only a very small number of bishops vote on contentious issues, and then to find that they nearly always happen to split their vote 50:50.

In any consideration of the prospects for the new Parliament we are all called to pray for those given the responsibility of authority and power on our behalf. But we are also called to resist the temptation to do a Pontius Pilate and wash our hands of the political dimension. Some people in the Church may well make a habit of wandering into political fields, where they may not necessarily have the expertise to sow and harvest, but that does not absolve any of us from the responsibility of stewardship of all God’s creation, and to engage in the proclamation of the Good News for the poor and the marginalized.