Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles today (18 February 2012) gave local councils a major new power that will allow town halls to continue to hold prayers.
Local councils now have a power that should enable them to continue to include prayers as part of the formal business at council meetings, if they wish, and thereby maintain the common practice in council meetings across the country.
This responds to last week’s High Court ruling against Bideford Town Council based on an interpretation of Section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972 rather than on equality or human rights grounds. It judged that councils did not have the powers to hold prayers as part of formal business.
This major new legal power is contained in the Coalition Government’s Localism Act 2011, which creates a ‘general power of competence’ that will allow councils to legally do anything an individual could do unless specifically prohibited by law. This should give councils that want to continue holding formal prayers the confidence and legal standing to do so.
Mr Pickles has fast-tracked and personally signed a Parliamentary Commencement Order so the new power can be exercised by all major local authorities in England from today and following due Parliamentary process for parishes by April.
Today’s intervention builds on the speech by the Prime Minister in Christ Church, Oxford, in December, where he asserted: “We are a Christian country and we should not be afraid to say so”. It also follows the official Ministerial delegation to the Holy See this week led by Cabinet Minister, Baroness Warsi; in her speech, she criticised the intolerance of “militant secularisation”.
Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, said:
The High Court judgement has far wider significance than just the municipal agenda of Bideford Town Council. For too long, faith has been marginalised in public life, undermining the very foundations of the British nation.
As a matter of urgency I have personally signed a Parliamentary order to bring into force an important part of the new Localism Act - the general power of competence - that gives councils the vital legal standing that should allow them to continue to hold formal prayers at meetings where they wish to do so.
This should effectively overtake the ruling and it also shows that greater localism can give local councils the strength and freedom to act in their best interests.
We will stand for freedom to worship, for Parliamentary sovereignty, and for long-standing British liberties.
Notes to Editors
- The Coalition Government’s Localism Act 2011 contains a new general power of competence that gives local authorities the legal capacity to do anything that an individual can do that is not specifically prohibited (they will not, for example, be able to ban or tax things, as an individual has no powers to do this). It gives councils more freedom to work together with others in new ways to drive down costs. It gives them increased confidence to do creative, innovative things to meet local people’s needs. Councils have asked for this power because it will help them get on with the job. Instead of being able to act only where the law says they can, local authorities will be free to do anything - provided it does not break any other laws. It does not remove any duties from local authorities - just like individuals they will continue to need to comply with duties placed on them.
- The general power of competence can now be used by ‘principal local authorities’ (London boroughs, the Isles of Scilly as well as all County, District, Metropolitan and Unitary authorities). A draft Order that will apply the general power to parish councils which meet the conditions set out in an Order that is currently before Parliament and it is hoped that this will be approved by April (that Order has to follow an ‘Affirmative Resolution’ procedure, requiring a vote in both Houses of Parliament). In the meantime informal advice on how parish councils can still hold prayers in their council chamber is being issued by Department for Communities for Local Government while ministers consider what further steps may be necessary.
- The provisions do not apply to local authorities in Wales, as the Welsh Assembly Government declined the offer of Coalition Government to include Welsh local authorities in the general power of competence. However, the Welsh Assembly does have the power to legislate in this area.
- The order also brings into effect wider powers for English Fire and Rescue Authorities, Integrated Transport Authorities, Passenger Transport Executives Combined Authorities and Economic Prosperity Boards. The Welsh Assembly Government has decided that Welsh fire and rescue authorities will not have access to the power until April 2012.
- The Secretary of State has today written to local authority leaders, faith organisations and parishes in England. The letters are available here: www.communities.gov.uk/publications/localgovernment/prayeradvice.
- The Localism Act 2011 contains a range of new freedoms and flexibilities for councils. More detail can be found here:
- A plain English Guide to the Localism Act 2011 can be found here:
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