As Easter weekend approaches Parish Councils across England, including Bideford Town Council, have been handed a new power to continue to hold prayers as part of their formal business, Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles announced today.
In February 2012, the High Court ruled against Bideford Town Council, maintaining that it was illegal for councils to continue with the long-standing practice of holding prayers at the beginning of their meetings. This judgment was based on an interpretation of Section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972.
In response, Eric Pickles fast-tracked the introduction of the new general power of competence for (principal) local authorities in England. Amongst other things, this new power enables councils to continue to include prayers as part of the formal business at council meetings, if they wish.
Following approval in both houses of Parliament, the power to include prayers has now been extended to town and parish councils, like Bideford, that meet the criteria.
This builds on the speech by the Prime Minister in Christ Church, Oxford, in December 2011, where he asserted:
We are a Christian country and we should not be afraid to say so.
Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, said:
Parliament has been clear that councils should have greater freedom from central interference. These new powers let councils innovate and also hands them back the freedom to pray.
Bideford Town Council will be able to hold prayers once more at the start of council business. With Easter approaching, this sends a strong signal that this Government will protect the role of faith in public life against aggressive secularism.
Notes to editors
1. The Coalition Government’s Localism Act 2011 contains a ‘general power of competence’ that will allow councils to innovate and 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. It gives councils more freedom to work together act creatively and innovatively to improve services, drive down costs and enhance their local area. Councils have asked for this power because it will help them get on with the job. It does not remove any duties from local authorities - just like individuals they will continue to need to comply with duties placed on them.
2. The implementation of the Parish Councils (General Power of Competence) (Prescribed Conditions) Order 2012 allows for parish councils that have a trained clerk and where two thirds of their members had been elected to resolve to use the general power of competence at any full council meeting. These conditions are intended to ensure that councillors seek proper advice before using the power and ensure a democratic mandate for the members actions. It is expected that every parish council will be able meet these basic eligibility requirements. Ministers are now considering what further steps can be taken to help the smaller parish meetings and parish councils who will not have the general power of competence. A link to the Order setting out these conditions is here: www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2012/965/contents/made (external link).
3. 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 Localism Act’s general power of competence. However, the Welsh Assembly also has power to legislate in this area.
4. Wider powers for English Fire and Rescue Authorities, Integrated Transport Authorities, Passenger Transport Executives Combined Authorities and Economic Prosperity Boards came into effect on 18 February 2012. The Welsh Assembly Government has decided that Welsh fire and rescue authorities will not have access to the power until April 2012.
5. On 21 February 2012 the Secretary of State wrote to local authority leaders, faith groups and parishes in England. The letters are available here: www.communities.gov.uk/publications/localgovernment/prayeradvice.
6. The Localism Act 2011 contains a range of new freedoms and flexibilities for councils. More detail can be found here: www.communities.gov.uk/news/localgovernment/2030130.
7. A plain English Guide to the Localism Act 2011 can be found here:
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