Queen’s Speech: Bishop of Southwark on extremism, freedom of speech and British values

On 24th May 2016 the Bishop of Southwark, Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, spoke in the third day of debate on the Queen’s Speech. He addressed the Government’s proposals for tackling extremism, British values and prison reform, and remarked on the need for unifying language and behaviour in political debate.


The Lord Bishop of Southwark: I will make a number of points which I hope will be of value to your Lordships’ House and respond appropriately to Her Majesty’s gracious Speech. It is clear to me that Ministers in this Government understand freedom, as did their predecessors, as freedom in security. We have heard in the Queen’s Speech that we may expect legislation,

“to prevent radicalisation, tackle extremism in all its forms, and promote … integration”.

This may be necessary, but I have concerns about our ready desire to legislate solutions to problems where other avenues present themselves. The recent lowering tone and content in public discourse is an example. It diminishes sympathy and challenges what constitutes legitimate and proper boundaries for political debate. I agree with the Chief Rabbi that:

“There has been nothing more disheartening … than the suggestion that this is more about politics than about substance”.

I am bound to observe, for example, that there were lapses of judgment during the recent mayoral election in London.

We need a politics of generosity that transcends such divisiveness, a narrative that does not engender fear, and I applaud indications within major political parties that recognise this. It was fitting that the cathedral church of a diocese—my own, as it happens—proud of its unifying role in an area of great ethnic and religious diversity should play host to the swearing in of the new Mayor of London. It is not a party political point to say that I welcome Sadiq Khan’s decision to start his mayoralty with a symbolic move that was both positive and unifying.

A good deal of the difficulty in drafting the Bill to counter extremism appears to lie in defining what is extreme and extreme in relation to what. Hitherto, it has been in relation to British values, but a proper definition of these values and a narrative around them has been lacking for some years. No such definition appears in the Government’s Counter-Extremism Strategy of last October. It remains to be seen whether measures other than those already available in statute and common law are required. What is lacking is a positive, attractive narrative or narratives, without which aspirations to integration are futile.

I say “narratives” because I am aware that this country has been fed by more than one tradition and that some of these are noble traditions of dissent. It remains a concern that in a rush to exclude the hateful and inflammatory, we also deny these traditions full expression. For example, the answers of Ministers to questions about whether people in this country have a right not to be offended have received ambiguous answers. People should not seek to offend, as I have made clear, but I do not believe we have a blanket right not to be offended. Such a right, if conceded, may be a comfort to some but it is not a British value. Constraints should be few. Democratic institutions are best undergirded when people are free to speak their minds fearlessly.

The security apparatus which operates to keep us safe is extensive. It already has that most un-British of features: provisions whereby a defendant may not see evidence used against them. At a time of crisis for this country, when the very state was under grave threat, Parliament passed the Treason Act 1695, giving defendants the right to see indictments in cases of high treason and any evidence pleaded with them. I know that practitioners argue the exceptionalism of the times. That those officers and officials charged with our safety seek additional powers is understandable, but this is not and never has been, until recently, deemed a sufficient criterion for granting such requests. As legislators, we should remember our previous sense of restraint and judge all such requests accordingly.

I will add just a few observations arising from the five major prison establishments in my diocese, including Her Majesty’s Prison Wandsworth, which I have visited twice in recent months. It features in current proposals for reform and last week was subject to extensive and alarming news reports. These were accurate but incomplete, failing to acknowledge the success of staff where it happens, including in the chaplaincy. None the less, the service we seek there and elsewhere cannot be achieved without the resources to deliver it. Cuts of a third have left their mark.

Indeed, if I may end where I began in your Lordships’ House, with a caution from my maiden speech in January 2015, the background to current pressures on our institutions is one of cuts in the public sector. Pressure on the voluntary sector has grown considerably. If it is to be contested that the resources available are finite, it needs to be remembered that the remarkable resources of voluntary endeavour are also finite and it is morally wrong to push them to the limit. I hope these thoughts on aspects of the gracious Speech are of some value as this debate progresses.

 Lord Paddick (LD) [extract]: My Lords, as the lead for home affairs on these Benches, together with my noble friend Lady Hamwee, I want to concentrate on some worrying trends in this Conservative majority Government in the area of home affairs. Contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, said in his opening speech—and here I agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark—this Government appear to be careering down an authoritarian and xenophobic path, with the potential to create division in our communities…

Viscount Waverley (CB) [extract]: My Lords, all forms of extremist behaviour are to be deplored. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark, who is not in his place, was absolutely right to draw attention to the challenges of defining extremism. However, when he went on to refer to the need to defend the freedom to speak fearlessly, I say to him with respect but concern that that should surely be only within the parameters established by law. I hesitate to say this out of sensitivity to the French, but I think that lessons need to be learnt from Paris…

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Lord Bridges of Headley) (Con) [extract]:  …As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has repeatedly said, the fight against extremism is the struggle of our generation. There is obviously the question of how we define extremism, as a number of noble Lords said. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark all raised this. I will ensure that these points are highlighted with the department, but will say at this juncture that we will consult on the detail in the coming months, and if a definition is used in the Bill I am sure it will be debated at length, quite rightly, during its passage through Parliament…

(via Parliament.uk)

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