How would you describe your beliefs and identity in relation to religion or ideology?
My ideological identity would be, because we are sitting in Parliament here, as a conservative. My religious identity would be as a Christian.
What made you decide to adopt or retain this belief system/identity?
No, I didn’t grow up as a Christian. I am one of those people with a conversion story. I didn’t grow up in a practising Christian house. It was a choice I made when I was 17. Into the Baptist Church originally, so non-conformist… since then I have been in the established Church, but very much a non conformist by root.
Do you think that GB is an equal and tolerant society, especially in relation to religion and belief?
I think GB is an equal and tolerant society in relation to religion and belief. We had struggles in the last five to ten years about certain aspects of manifestation of religious beliefs in the work place and society, but generally, yes. When you think about, and you take a step back globally and you can meet, whatever faith you are, and you can meet freely in this country, you can start a school, you can meet together for worship, you know… there are only Government restrictions when it comes to things such as if you want to be a charity, then you have to comply with certain rules; but that is the same if you want to be a charity to relief poverty, education… I think a key role there in terms of history is the full circle of the Anglican Church, very much doing in the last fifteen years, pretty much of multi-faith work. So, we are the vehicle or the entry point to show you how to conduct yourself in the public space.
Have you ever experienced any challenges to living in accordance with your beliefs? If so, are they legal, social or political in nature?
I have been in various workplaces, political and legal, I have not actually found a challenge in that respect of the environment. To me it is the challenge, for me, is a communication challenge. When you live in a culture in which there has been a great decline in terms of religious literacy, understanding and people have, lots of people, especially mine is a tipping point generation, I was born in 1972, the social attitudes… you see, mine is the generation which has lost church… when you look at the statistics. There is very little understanding of Church and Christianity, but the challenge is how to communicate to people in a way which is accessible and that is a challenge for faith communities to look at themselves and take themselves into the public space, which can be the media or around the coffee machine at work, and to talk in a way that is accessible to other people.
I think it is interesting when you look at the Universal Declaration and the ECHR, there isn’t a kind of faith aspect. I think it was part of the discussion on the ECHR, but when I read the Universal Declaration and from the perspective I come from, I think it is embedded in Judeo-Christian ethics, particularly going from a very basic point of principle, which is that every single human being is of equal value. You can’t have a system unless you have that basic agreement. And we can now just say ‘of course, it is obvious’, but when you look at certain countries, and it was the case in the UK centuries ago… you look at the radical transformation of the last century in terms of human rights, for instance, in terms of rights of women. People point, and obviously one example would be the Dhalis, in India. I don’t think universal human rights are contradictory, at all, with the Judeo Christian ethics, but I wouldn’t claim that I have the monopoly as a Christian.
Have Human Rights as enshrined in the Human Rights Act been a positive development for British society?
Human Rights are a very good thing for British society.
How do Christian Churches regard Human Rights?
There are lots of Amnesty International groups which operate in church contexts. There has been a lot of activities in terms of social and economic rights in the UK… the Churches in the UK… there has also been a campaign about the contentious edges of religious freedom in terms of manifestation of faith, and in terms of equality duties which are imposed in the public sector. So, there have been edging issues.
HRs are generally speaking respected by the Government and other public bodies in Britain, but there is a rhetoric… when you look at the Government and the assessment they have made in terms of compliance with any convention we have signed, with the ECHR… so, yes, they respect, but there is a rhetoric of suspicion.
Do public authorities achieve the correct level of intervention in the lives of citizens in relation to the expression of religious beliefs?
Public authorities tend not to intervene in the lives of religious and ethical groups. As I said, I could set up a church tomorrow and I wouldn’t have to say to the State except for rules of Planning Law if I want to have a buildingThe State gets involved because we have lots of faith schools in the UK. They have to be governed in the same way all our education is governed, but as I said you have to abide by Planning Law, and financial regulations stuff. So, if you want to be a charity and you don’t have to be, but if you want to be a charity, and claim gift aids, etc, you’ll have to comply with certain regulations.
What do you think about faith schools?
In International Law families have a right to educate their children in accordance with their beliefs, and I think there is a difference here… we have faith schools, with a clear ethos… however, there have been certain situations where either in the State or in the private sector, there have been situations in which what was a faith school has ended up not infusing ethos, but the education has been used to keep those young people within the faith. Obviously, most faiths hope that educating young people in that faith, they would infuse in remaining in the faith. When there has been this kind of elimination of that choice, and closing to young people from other ideas…that is, I think, where there is a very large agreement in our society and that is why people in the UK think that Anglican schools are a good thing, because they educate and there is a Christian ethos, but it is very much about these young people to make their choices. Education is not about controlling them. It is a very difficult issue, it is a difficult balance, and sometimes it is one of those issues where the line can be very, very grey, but when you have passed the line, you look back and you can see that the line was right there. Sometimes it is really difficult. For instance, now we are changing the GCSE curriculum, and there must be an analysis of different faith traditions. If you choose to do Christianity, you have to do another one. If you choose Judaism, you have to choose another one.
Are faith schools source of segregation or cohesion? It is very difficult. I have a lot of sympathy for inspectors, trying to go, and trying to really see how integrated these young people are with other people who are not the same as them. You have the same issue in different contexts like in Northern Ireland. You want young people to be exposed to people who are different to them, politically, different economic background… it is really important.
Public authorities must intervene when there are safeguarding issues concerning children. It is the Criminal Law basically. Institutions have to operate within the law of the law and that would be the boundary, and because we have quite a few criminal offences that have to do with speech. So, inciting to religious or racial hatred is a criminal offence and you have to abide by that law. Sometimes we forget that freedom of religion and belief, the whole Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a body. You aren’t meant to pick up certain rights here and there… You have to hold it altogether as a body of law and keep it together. That is why there can be restrictions in the name of public order, etc, but we don’t have the police going into churches, etc. Our police don’t want that. When there was under Tony Blair a much more expansive use of the criminal law of inciting to religious hatred, the police would be saying ‘that is not our job… we don’t want to be policing religious communities like this. That is not what the Police Constable wants to be doing. So, there isn’t a lot of State intervention. That is what we struggle with. Historically, because of our religious history, the State doesn’t get involved with it, and it is very, very difficult to find that line.
I am not qualified to say if we are in a better or worse position than the rest of Europe. Because our arrangements are so different, you have a disestablished Church in Wales, the established Church of Scotland and then the situation in Northern Ireland.
Do you think that living in a democracy is a good thing? Is there a system of government which you would prefer?
No, there is no form of government which I would prefer to a democracy, but it is not perfect.
Do your beliefs meant that you feel that you have a duty to vote?
Statistics show that Christians in this country tend to vote. The rate of turnout is higher than the average one. If I were not a member of the HofL, I would definitely vote. I think I have always voted. I cannot think of any election… I may have missed a local council election at some point, when I was at university or… but I have always taken it very seriously.
My concern is whether or not we understand fully the means of communication with younger generation. When I have given talks, and I see lots of blank faces, what I have discovered is that the talk goes immediately to Twitter or Facebook. That is when they will be discussing it, whilst I go away and leave the meeting and think ‘gosh, that really felt flat’. But it didn’t, when you go to Facebook afterwards… I haven’t seen any advert on Youtube for instance at the moment which has grabbed me, ‘yes, that is a good campaign’. I don’t see Eastenders or stuff like that, but has this been part of the plot, for example? Did anybody think of approaching the actor who played Martin Luther King in Selma? He is British. Are there any other celebs (apart from Russel Brand), who would engage with young people and encourage them to vote? Are there footballers saying ‘go and register’? I don’t think there are… the role models not only for the 18 and 19 year old university students, also the 18 and 19 year old apprentices… the footballer or the character of Eastender, for example, are going to be the people they are talking about.
Should Parliament have the final say in making or changing law? Should the judiciary have greater powers?
The judiciary in the UK have been empowered under the HRA, not to the extent that they would in a codified Constitution. They can issue declarations of incompatibility and a lot of cases concerning human rights are coming through judicial review procedures… that way. There has been an empowerment of the judiciary. If we did that (striking down powers), it would be a case of taking the whole system apart and start again, and I can’t see Britain doing do. We have issues with devolution, I know… I think there has been a movable beast since the HRA came into effect… one of the first hearings we had in the Joint Committee of Human Rights we had, with the Master of the Rolls and the Head of the Supreme Court giving evidence, and you will see many judges giving public lectures, etc. There will be more changes, but judges are sensitive about the relationship between Parliament and the judiciary. Actually I think it was on the record that they were sensitive about being questioned by parliamentary committees. It was relatively new territory to them, but I think it is healthy and I think we are very fortunate here and it is not the same in other European countries. Our judiciary, in terms of honesty and integrity they are really well respected. I am not sure they would want to be given the ultimate powers to strike down primary legislation. They interpret common law and they can declare a statute incompatible, when it gets to JR you sense that tension between the Government and the judiciary. I can’t see us going all the way for a codified Constitution. We may end up with a British Bill of Rights, but that is slightly different to a Constitution.
Is an understanding of democracy as the will of the majority a problem for minority groups? Are there some sections of society which face barriers to participation?
I would never define democracy purely in terms of you can go to the ballot box. It is about checks and balances, accountability, independent judiciary, etc. So it is a wider, being a free and democratic society, reality. Yes, but there are barriers to people if they want to get elected, barriers faced by all political parties… in terms of economic barriers, it is expensive to run for election. So, there are barriers for people standing for election, but I think generally it does a good job. It is not perfect though. In the UK we are used to things changing and being gradual in their change. Parliament is not truly representative. In terms of the composition of both Houses, only 50% of people go to university and 50% not, this doesn’t happen… a complete breakdown to match the geographical distribution of the population… you are not going to get it like that. There have been gradual changes and pressures to make sure that there are more women and ethnic minorities in Parliament. In the Lords, when they appoint people, they try to get a balance. There are lots of people from London and the south East, but getting people from other parts of England… there are quite a lot of Scots, Welsh and Northern Ireland, but getting people from other parts of England is a challenge.
Does it concern you that members of the House of Lords are not elected?
I think you can’t just look at reform of the Lords and just focus on the way the Lords are appointed. It is about what their/our function is, and it is also about reform of the Commons, and that is why the latest bill didn’t pass the Commons, because they see that this is a change to their role, because if you elect the Lords, then the Lords can outvote the Commons. At the moment, we don’t do that, because we are not elected, and what would concern me about a fully elected House would be the lack of separation of powers at the moment between the executive and the legislature. At the moment the executive can command the Lower Chamber, but what cannot command is the Upper Chamber. It is a very effective break and in the current context, were we ever to be effective as PR, I don’t think we are, the fact that we have 200 people with no political allegiance at all is something that the people really like, because they bring neutrality to the system. It is not a perfect system, but the reform which Nick Clegg put forward was dreadful and I proposed an Appointments Commission for everybody, to get rid of the Prime Minister’s patronage powers and have an Appointments Commission, I think I am on record, saying that if we get a system like that, I shall be resubmitting an application, and if I haven’t done a good job, then I won’t get reappointed, and I’ll go and do something else. This is not the only way to serve. It is a good way, but it is not the only way.
How do you feel about the presence of Church of England bishops in the House of Lords?
We have 31 bishops actually. By convention, retired Canterbury and York go to the crossbenchers. I think there are 31, maybe 30. We have 2 retired Canterbury: Rowan Williams and Carey, and then we have Hope and Habgood, I think one of them may have died… and then Richard Harris was appointed under Tony Blair’s Government. I think it is 30. I need to check. One of the former Archbishops of York is still alive. I am a kind on the fence person about it in principle. In practice, they are here and therefore, I get to know them, I work with them, etc, etc. I can see why for other people is problematic, even within a Christian Church I think it is problematic. It is only England. This is the UK Parliament, and Northern Ireland, Wales, etc, there is no formal representation of their Churches. The Catholics, Cardinal Basil Hume and Murphy McConnor, the Vatican said ‘no’ on that one, but when one sees the last statistics about church attendance in England, the Anglicans have 800000 on a Sunday, but when you look at the overall attendance the Anglicans and the Catholics have 26% each of them… and this was a few years ago. I think the Catholics now are massively ahead with the new Pope. Therefore, in England, you have 48% who are not within either of those two… by whom are they represented? They have managed to bring the Chief Rabbi, we have the Sikhs, Lord Singh. We don’t have any formal representation of the Hindu and Muslim faiths and we look at other Christians in England, there is no representation of the Salvation Army, who do lots of social work, or representation of the ethnic minority Churches, particularly the so called black led Churches, which are huge and growing… and growing. That is what saddens me. You get a very narrow, I am not saying illegitimate, but narrow perspective and gives them access to lots of places.
So, there was one debate, maybe it would be interesting for you to look at. They had a report by a charity into social enterprise or something in England and the report said, of course, that the solution was to have a department in Church House and the Anglican Church should be running this. And then I fished back to the work of this charity and the funding for this report, and it was Anglican money for this charity to produce this report to say that the Anglican Church should be running this. And I thought I had really tempered down my speech… for Goodness Sake… that was on the floor of the House of Lords. And I thought that the non conformists and the others do not get this. And I think it is going to be for academics a fascinating task over the next fifteen years, because I think the role of the CofE as an umbrella of protection has been important in terms of freedom of religion and belief, and obviously the royal connection is important. I don’t think that is the case in other European countries, but it is problematic when you go overseas, it is deeply problematic to be explaining to people. In similar ways, some things about the Holy See are difficult to explain. You know Saudi Arabia, it is difficult to explain some things… they may tell you ‘we will allow you to build a church when the Holy See builds a mosque’… It is very difficult. That is when the constitutional principles get, very soon, linked with freedom of religion and belief, because it is a question of… for instance the Special Rapporteur told me ‘oh, Elizabeth, there are lots of religions in China’. But it is not free and the freedom is often ‘where is the State in all this?’ You don’t have to have the American model… the UK model upholds Art 18 anyway.
Do public authorities respect the will of Parliament, as expressed through legislation?
Public authorities don’t ignore legislation, because they would get struck down by the courts. JR is about ultra vires, and that is what they really fear. It is not usually deliberate infringement of the law and if it is, they cover up as lack of consultation or procedural impropriety. They may do it, but they will get found out.
How do you regard the devolved administrations?
I don’t have particular views on devolution. I haven’t experienced… obviously we have dealt with some matters in the Joint Committee on Human Rights, as certain powers and responsibilities are devolved. You have a very interesting relationship… the UK has signed up to a convention like the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and some of the compliance has been delegated out to NI and therefore they don’t have control over that, but the UK is still accountable. It is a very strange model. We are working through these things.
How should people who exercise power be held accountable? What responsibilities come with power?
You should have to work from a basic principle that none of us is perfect, and people always say that the main temptations are sex and power. Only when you get near, when it is economic, political or celebrity power, you can see that power can really affect people. If you come from that position that we are fallible, holding power should come with a warning on the box, like cigarettes, saying that it can be very toxic to people, and people always say that people in power end up being lonely and I can see why that can be the case.
Are Christians appropriately represented in public life?
I suspect that Christians at local level are disproportionately not represented, because of their own choice. Practising Christians don’t tend to get involved. I haven’t seen many who have told me ‘well, I want to be a good councillor’. According to Prof Linda Woodhead’s study, when you look at the judiciary, it is disproportionately Anglican. They are completely out of kilter politically as well. In terms of members of Parliament, I think there are disproportionately many more practising Christians in the Lords than in the Commons, and many more than in the overall population.
Is there enough distance between the judiciary and the legislature/executive?
Our judiciary are sufficiently independent. If you poke them like that…. I can’t remember if it was Theresa May who got into a spat with one of the judges… they got back to Theresa May. They know what their role is. They know their independence is highly guarded.
I do think the Blair years were a low time for Parliament, because he had a huge majority and commanded it, but then we have seen changes… still the Government doesn’t have a majority in the Lords and it has to persuade these crossbenchers to the very least to stay at home, the select committees are now elected… so, if you turn back the clock even five years… to have regularly these hearings before select committees with bankers, Rupert Murdoch, etc…. this is because it is no longer the province of the whips to appoint the members of the select committees. Some select committees are really highly regarded. What the public don’t like is that people respond to parties just like a nodding dog.
How do Christians seek to challenge decisions which they see as problematic?
You know… I don’t think they are very effective. They are far too split as a group. If they were a more cohesive group, they would be more effective.
Is it important for you to always act within secular law?
Currently the rule of law, as in abiding by the laws, I don’t feel there is any law of the land which I couldn’t obey, but there could well come a time in which a piece of legislation is passed, which you couldn’t abide by. It would be extreme to be in that position. It happens in the Bible, there are very clear lines in the Bible about this, but we are not there.
Do your beliefs require you to speak on behalf of third parties, especially the vulnerable?
My beliefs require to speak on behalf of the vulnerable, but I think one of the things I have suspected is that there is sometimes within the Church, and I think it is changing now, there is an assumption that Christians who go into public life, will critique and speak out for injustices wherever they see it as it is not within the Church. Casting the light back within our own community publicly, we are not comfortable with. We have huge problems now… Part of the problems is about not being able to face up to ourselves, and we must make sure that accountability is achieved, accepted that we are as fallible as the next person. So, for me my faith commands me to speak about the injustices I see outside and within my own community.
Is the Rule of Law applied equally in our society? Do some groups receive preferential or prejudicial treatment?
I think the law is the law of the land and people get convicted, prosecuted… and no politician or anyone like that is above the law. However, there are certain queries about how we police them, how we enforce the law… One of my concerns is how we monitor drug consumption… we heavily police it in certain communities such as Peckham, etc, for possession of certain drugs, and it is right in the city, in the universities, etc… And I therefore have concerns about how we police it… Are we doing it in a completely blind manner? But the law of the land is the law of the land. And a good example is Andrew Mitchell. He’s gone through that, and the Police Constable took a libel action against him, which he lost. I think those cases are very healthy for us.
The police are subject to the law of the land like everybody else. There is no exemption for them. You are given extra powers but that does not mean you are above the law.
Baroness Berridge has been a Conservative Member of the House of Lords since 2011. She has long-standing relationships and works closely with Britain’s Black and Minority Ethnic communities. Baroness Berridge is a project co-director of the Commonwealth Institute for Freedom of Religion or Belief at the University of Birmingham. She co-chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief and is a member of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief. A graduate of the University of Cambridge, she worked as a barrister in Manchester for nine years before directing the Conservative Christian Fellowship.