Chris Bryant: How sanctimonious and uptight do you have to be to object to these prayers?

A Political Life

Chris Bryant
Saturday 11 February 2012 01:00

I'm about as secular a former vicar and heterodox a Christian as you can get, but there are times when the secularists just make themselves look silly. Yesterday's crazy judgment against Bideford Council is one such instance.

I mean, how uptight and sanctimonious do you have to be to want to prevent other people from starting the council meeting with prayers just because you're a humanist?

Yes, if the majority of members want to abolish prayers, then fine, do away with them. And, yes, make it clear that attendance at prayers is not compulsory or even especially desirable. But this distinction between whether the prayers are said before the summoned meeting or as part of it is false.

What is more, I don't buy this argument that because the Local Government Act doesn't expressly allow councils to pray, they can't choose to do so. I'm guessing that within weeks some MP will introduce a Bill to allow councils to pray at the start of meetings. I might even do so myself. And then the militant secularists will have scored a massive own goal.

Don't just ignore this suffering

Every week, there is yet another story about human trafficking. A deaf, orphaned girl of 10 brought to the UK from Pakistan and treated as a slave for 10 years. A group of British workers living in abject conditions in Sweden, trapped by unfair financial terms and unable to flee for fear of reprisals.

Trafficking gangs in eastern Europe charging exorbitant sums to bring young women from further east to the UK for the sex trade and young men to work illegally on building sites; all of them trapped in hovels, in permanent debt and in servitude by their status as illegal immigrants.

It stands to reason that international prosecuting co-operation must be the key to tackling this modern-day slavery. Yet, terrified of their backbenchers, three government ministers (Damian Green, James Brokenshire and Dominic Grieve) this week point blank refused to commit to staying in the European Arrest Warrant, which is the best European tool we have for ensuring swift action when a trafficking gang is discovered within the EU.

Let me cite one instance where the EAW was central. A Slovakian woman was convicted for trafficking for sexual exploitation in England, but it was only thanks to an EAW that her husband, who "recruited" the young women in Slovakia, was brought to face justice here.

The Government was far too slow signing up to the EU directive on human trafficking. Let's hope it's not preparing to abandon the EAW, which would be a European licence to traffic.

The Commissioner and the telephonist

It's a fact of life that MPs, like diplomats, sometimes have to eat for their country. Wednesday night it was the Greek Cypriot Brotherhood dinner in honour of Haris Sophoclides, who has long campaigned for the reunification of still-divided Cyprus.

John Prescott, pictured, was the after-dinner speaker and despite bemoaning the fact that "although I look like Les Dawson I can't tell jokes like him", he regaled us with the story of trying to contact the Cypriot High Commissioner while the Commissioner was back home in Cyprus. It was still the days of telephone exchanges. When Prescott got through to the Nicosia exchange and gave the number for the High Commissioner's house, the helpful telephonist said, "Actually, I know he's just popped round to his mother's. I'll put you through."

It's all in the timing

Parliament is capricious. Sometimes you end up saying the wrong thing at the wrong moment. Not long after my own Gaydar/underpants saga, I unthinkingly quoted a line from Measure for Measure – "dressed in a little brief authority" – which sent Nicholas Soames into such paroxysms that I thought he was going to explode.

This week, my clever colleague Andy Slaughter's researcher got into hot water when he tweeted some daft remarks about the Queen. By an amazing piece of fortune, Andy came top of the ballot for Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday. That meant he would come immediately after Cameron made his preliminary remarks, which would almost certainly include a warm tribute to Her Majesty on the 60th anniversary of her accession. Sure enough, Cameron gushed and the Tories heckled.

Cool as a cucumber, Andy acknowledged the joke with a quiet smile. "I am sure the whole House, and not least myself, will wish to join the Prime Minister in his warm tribute to Her Majesty." Hansard adds: "Hon Members: 'Hear, hear'."

A fine example of mutual respect

'Tis the season to play rugby. I know this not only because I'm Welsh, but because despite all the sabre-rattling in London and Buenos Aires about the Falkland Islands, I received a Facebook message from an Argentinian friend who plays in their Congressional rugby team. My friend had watched last weekend's Wales match against Ireland and wanted to wish us well. In case you were thinking that he is clearly lacking in patriotism, Ernesto Peluffo fought at Goose Green as a sub-lieutenant with much honour, had large parts of his face shot off by 2nd Paras, and now runs the Argentinian veterans' group. He's always told me he has great respect for his opponents. I wish our two nations could adopt the same attitude.

Twitter: @ChrisBryantMP

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