Education policy is devolved to both Scotland and Wales.
Sex education (England)
Until new legislation is implemented in September 2020, the law requires state-maintained secondary schools in England to offer sex education. This does not apply to free schools, academies and primary schools. However, there have been many efforts in recent years to press for statutory sex education for children as young as five. There have also been calls to limit or scrap the right of parents to remove their children from sex education lessons.246
In March 2017 the Conservative Government announced a new statutory subject of ‘Relationships Education’, to apply to all primary schools in England. Welcomed across the parties, the enabling legislation was passed later that year. The implementing regulations and accompanying statutory guidance were consulted on in 2018. The new subject will be fully implemented from September 2020, though many schools have already started. It will mean teaching young children about “different types” of relationships, which could include homosexuality, transgenderism and same-sex marriage. Parents will not have the right to withdraw their children from the classes. A secondary school subject called Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) – covering “sex, sexuality, sexual health and gender identity” – will include a partial right of parental withdrawal. Department for Education (DfE) guidance says schools “are free to determine” how they address LGBT content but it should be “fully integrated into their programmes of study” when taught.247 The DfE states that secondary schools should cover LGBT content and that primary schools are “strongly encouraged” to do so.248
Religious education and school assemblies
The law in England and Wales requires that the main content of religious education in non-denominational schools must be devoted to the study of Christianity.249 There must also be a daily act of collective worship in schools that is “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character”.250 Teachers and pupils can opt out of the act of worship.
Promoting homosexuality in schools
In 2003 Labour repealed ‘Section 28’ – which banned promotion of homosexuality in schools – for England and Wales. Section 28 was repealed in Scotland in 2000.
Home education (England)
Parents are responsible for ensuring their children receive a suitable education, at school or otherwise. Education is compulsory, but school is not.
There have been growing calls for the regulation of home education. Senior Ofsted and local authority figures have made a link between home education and unregistered schools. Dame Louise Casey’s integration review, commissioned by the Government in July 2015 and published in December 2016, called for greater regulation of home education.
In April 2019 the DfE consulted on the creation of four new duties, including requiring home-educating parents to register their children with their local authority. The Government has not yet published the outcome of the consultation. DfE guidance for local authorities and home educators, published in April 2019, includes “conflict with ‘Fundamental British Values’” as an example of unsuitable teaching.
Marriage and the family
The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, which introduced same-sex ‘marriage’ in England and Wales, came into force in March 2014.
Religious groups can opt in to conduct same-sex weddings if they wish, but the 2013 Act specifically excludes same-sex weddings within the Church of England and the Church in Wales.251 It also states that no church or church minister can be compelled “by any means” to carry out a same-sex wedding.252 The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Act 2014 introduced same-sex ‘marriage’ in Scotland, with similar protections for church ministers who disagree with same-sex marriage.
In July 2019 MPs at Westminster voted to impose same-sex marriage on Northern Ireland by regulations if the Stormont institutions were not restored by 21 October 2019. The Northern Ireland Secretary is under an obligation to introduce same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland by 13 January 2020.253
In 2005 the UK’s Civil Partnership Act came into force, allowing same-sex couples to legally register their relationship. The rights and privileges of marriage and civil partnership are virtually identical. It was seen by many as paving the way for same-sex marriage.
In June 2014 the Government rejected the idea of extending civil partnerships to heterosexual couples after respondents to a consultation were overwhelmingly opposed.254 The Supreme Court ruled in June 2018 that it was unlawful that heterosexual couples could only marry while same-sex couples had the choice of marriage or civil partnership. Following this, the UK Government agreed to support a Private Member’s Bill requiring civil partnerships to be extended to heterosexual couples by the end of 2019.255 The Scottish Government also intends to introduce opposite-sex civil partnerships.256
Marriage tax breaks
In April 2014 MPs voted 279 to 214 in favour of a tax break for married couples and civil partners. The transferable tax allowance, which became available on 6 April 2015, is worth up to £250 in 2019-20.257
Parents throughout the UK have been able to use a loving smack under the defence of reasonable chastisement. This remains lawful in England and Northern Ireland and there are currently no plans to change it. Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) guidance covering England says anything that causes ‘more than transitory’ reddening of the skin is not reasonable and therefore is a criminal offence. The Welsh Assembly is considering a Bill to abolish the reasonable chastisement defence. The Scottish Parliament passed legislation to abolish it in October 2019, which will criminalise all parental smacking when it comes into force.
The Adoption and Children Act 2002 legalised joint adoption by cohabiting heterosexual and homosexual couples in England and Wales. Before this, some 95 per cent of all adoptions were by married couples and the other five per cent by single persons.258 In England and Wales in 2018-19, twelve per cent of adoptions were to same-sex couples.259 The Adoption and Children (Scotland) Act 2007 legalised joint adoption by cohabiting and homosexual couples in Scotland.
The UK’s Gender Recognition Act 2004 allows an adult who has been diagnosed with ‘gender dysphoria’260 by two doctors and has lived for two years in the opposite sex to change legal sex, including on their birth certificate.
There have been increasing calls to liberalise the 2004 Act, in particular so people can change their legal sex without any need for a medical diagnosis (‘self-declaration’). There are also calls for the minimum age for changing legal sex to be reduced from 18 to 16, and for legal recognition for those who say they are neither male nor female (‘non-binary’).261
The UK Government consulted on changing the Act for England and Wales in 2018. Its stated aim was to make it “less intrusive and bureaucratic” to change legal sex.262 The consultation closed in October 2018 and received over 100,000 responses.263 The Government has not announced the outcome. Ministers have conceded that the issue is more contentious than they anticipated.264
In 2017 the Scottish Government launched a consultation on a proposal to allow self-declaration. There were over 15,000 responses. Of those answering the relevant question, 60 per cent were in favour of the plans.265 The Scottish Government has announced a further consultation on a Bill to “bring Scotland’s process of Gender Recognition in line with international best practice”.266
The present law allows abortion up to 24 weeks’ gestation, but permits abortion up to birth where the child may have ‘a serious handicap’. What constitutes a serious handicap has not been defined. The diagnosis of a comparatively trivial deformity, such as a cleft palate, has been used as a ground for an abortion.267 Overall in 2018 in Great Britain, 98 per cent of the 218,581 legal abortions were carried out for social reasons.268
In 2008 pro-life MPs sought a reduction in the upper gestational time limit for abortion from the current limit of 24 weeks. Several votes to lower this were sadly lost.
The coalition Government stated on numerous occasions that sex-selective abortion is illegal in Britain. However, the head of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) has claimed that the “law is silent on the matter of gender selection”.269 The Daily Telegraph carried out an investigation in 2012 that caught two doctors offering abortions to women who said their babies were the ‘wrong sex’.270 The CPS decided not to charge the two doctors, saying it was not in the public interest.271 In February 2015, MPs did not back an amendment proposed by Conservative MP Fiona Bruce to clarify that abortion on the grounds of sex alone is illegal in the UK.
Department of Health guidance on abortion released in May 2014 says there is “no legal requirement” for doctors to see women seeking an abortion before approving it. It suggests that nurses could see the patient instead. The guidance also suggests that doctors can reach an opinion by talking to the patient over the phone or via a webcam.272 This has been seen as the biggest liberalisation of abortion practice in England and Wales since the 1967 Abortion Act was passed.
In September 2019 new guidelines on abortion were published by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). The guidelines have been criticised for making recommendations that could encourage abortion. These include self-referrals to abortion providers and replacing face-to-face consultations with phone or video consultations.
Some local councils have started to use powers under the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2014 to create ‘buffer zones’ around abortion clinics. These zones prevent pro-life groups from having a presence within a certain distance of abortion sites. In 2018 the Government reviewed whether it should create buffer zones for all abortion venues nationwide, but said that doing so would not be “proportionate”.273
In July 2019 MPs at Westminster voted to liberalise abortion law in Northern Ireland, if the Stormont institutions were not restored by 21 October 2019. From 22 October, abortion became legal in the Province for any reason, unless the baby is capable of being born alive. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is under a duty to create a new abortion framework by regulations, before 31 March 2020.274 Until the new framework is in place abortions will not be available on the NHS in Northern Ireland, but the UK Government is paying for women to travel to England for the procedure.275
Abortion law was devolved to the Scottish Parliament by the Scotland Act 2016.
Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act 2008
This became law in November 2008, liberalising UK law covering the use of embryos. The most controversial elements included allowing scientists to create animal-human hybrid embryos, permitting the selection of embryos to be born as ‘saviour siblings’ for a child with a serious medical condition, and abolishing ‘the need of a child for a father’ requirement in IVF.276 The work on animal-human hybrids was abandoned as a failure a year after the Act was passed.277
The HFE Act permitted future regulations allowing scientists to create genetically modified children for women who have mitochondrial disease. The coalition Government introduced these regulations in February 2015, making the UK the first country in the world to legislate for the techniques to create GM children with three or four parents.278 The procedures involve germline modification, which will affect future generations in unknown ways. The first licence to create three and four-parent babies was granted by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority in March 2017.279
Euthanasia by acts of commission, such as by administering a lethal injection, is illegal in the UK, as is assisting someone to commit suicide. Pro-euthanasia campaigners have made repeated attempts to change the law.
In 2015, Labour MP Rob Marris introduced a Private Member’s Bill to legalise assisted suicide in England and Wales. In September 2015 it was defeated in the Commons, by 330 votes to 118.
MSPs rejected the Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill in May 2015 by 82 votes to 36.
In June 2014 the UK Supreme Court dismissed an appeal to allow doctors to assist in suicides. Judges upheld an earlier decision by the High Court, saying that it is for the UK Parliament to decide.280 The European Court of Human Rights has confirmed that the law on assisted suicide is a matter for Member States.281 In November 2018, the Supreme Court declined to hear a case brought by a man with motor neurone disease who was trying to change the law.282
In 2011 the coalition Government removed a safeguard preventing blood being donated by men who have ever had sex with other men.283 It had been in place since the 1980s to prevent the risk of HIV contamination. But from November 2011 men who had not had sexual contact with another man for more than twelve months were able to donate blood in Great Britain. The Government reduced this deferral period to three months in 2017. Men who have sex with men have a higher risk of sexually acquired blood-borne viruses.284
Religious liberty in the UK
The Government’s counter-extremism strategy goes beyond tackling terrorism and violence to address ‘non-violent extremism’. This is described as vocal or active opposition to “fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”. 285
Concerns have been raised that this definition is too vague and subjective, potentially catching any person with strong beliefs, no matter how peace-loving or innocuous. The difficulty in agreeing a legal definition of extremism reportedly led to the Government abandoning a proposed Counter-Extremism Bill.286 David Anderson QC, the former Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, said an early draft extremism Bill was the most alarming single document he saw in his time in the role, because of its implications for freedom.287
The Conservative Government established the Commission for Countering Extremism in 2018 to advise on new policies to deal with extremism, including the need for any new powers. The Commission held a call for evidence, to which 2,500 members of the public responded. Nearly 60 per cent said the Government’s extremism definition was “very unhelpful” with a further 17 per cent describing it as “unhelpful”.288 The Commission’s first report was published in October 2019. It criticised the Government’s extremism definition for damaging freedom of speech and said there was no evidence of new laws being required. It recommended that the focus should be on tackling ‘hateful extremism’.289 The Government has not responded to the report, but plans to publish a new Counter-Extremism Strategy in 2020.290
‘British values’ in schools
In 2014 Ofsted inspectors began carrying out ‘British values’ checks on schools across the education system in England. There were multiple reports of Ofsted inspectors failing to understand or respect the ethos of Jewish and Christian schools. Intrusive questions were asked of children and teachers about issues including same-sex marriage and transgenderism.
Ofsted inspections of churches
The 2015 Counter-Extremism Strategy proposed that out-of-school institutions teaching children would in future have to register with the state. The Government consulted on giving Ofsted legal power to investigate any setting in England that provides instruction to children for more than six to eight hours in any week. The proposals stated that any “extremist” or “undesirable” teaching which is incompatible with ‘British values’ would be prohibited.291
The plans could have encompassed various forms of church youth work, such as holiday Bible clubs, church weekends away, some summer camps and even Sunday schools. Sanctions potentially included banning leaders from working with children. Failure to register would have been a criminal offence. The consultation closed in January 2016. In April 2018 the plans were formally dropped.
Extremism Disruption Orders
Plans for Extremism Disruption Orders (EDOs) stalled due to the failure to agree a definition of ‘extremism’ for the Counter-extremism Bill (see above). EDOs were to be aimed at “harmful activities of extremist individuals who spread hate but do not break laws”.292 Theresa May said the measures would cover “extremism in all its forms”.293 ‘Banning orders’ were also proposed to close down groups promoting ‘extremism’.294
The Prevent strategy was first introduced under Labour after the July 2005 London bombings. After the coalition Government reviewed the strategy in 2011, it began to focus more on non-violent extremists. The Prevent strategy has been controversial. It has been linked to well-publicised incidents of over-reaction. However, there are also reports of the scheme operating successfully. The Government has committed to a review, which must be completed by August 2020.295
Reform of Section 5
The misuse of Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 led to several instances of Christians being arrested, detained and even prosecuted simply for expressing their religious beliefs. In December 2012 the House of Lords overwhelmingly supported former police Chief Constable Lord Dear’s amendment to remove the word “insulting” from the scope of Section 5, voting 150 to 54. In January 2013, the Government agreed to give way.296 The reform officially came into force on 1 February 2014.
Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance (IPNAs)
Under Clause 1 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill 2013, Anti-social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) were set to be replaced by IPNAs. The proposed injunctions would have outlawed “causing nuisance or annoyance to any person” in a public place and were widely criticised as being too vague.297
In January 2014 the House of Lords voted 306 to 178 to replace the proposed “nuisance or annoyance” threshold with the safer, longstanding threshold of causing “harassment, alarm or distress”. The Government subsequently backed down and agreed to accept the basis of the amendment.298
Hate crime and aggravated offences
Currently, certain racially and religiously aggravated crimes automatically carry a tougher penalty in English law. Crimes motivated by hostility to sexual orientation and transgenderism can also receive a more serious sentence. There are moves to elevate such offences to the same category as religion and race. The most serious forms of hate crime are ‘incitement to hatred’ offences, which currently cover race (Great Britain) and religion and sexual orientation (England and Wales).
Incitement to religious hatred law
After several earlier attempts, the Labour Government succeeded in passing an incitement to religious hatred offence in the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006. After an extensive campaign, vital safeguards were introduced to protect, among other things, religious debate and evangelism. As amended, the law (which has a maximum seven-year prison sentence) only covers threatening words or behaviour intended to stir up hatred, and there is an explicit protection for free speech and evangelism. The Government opposed these safeguards, which were introduced by the House of Lords, and said it would remove them in the Commons. However, MPs voted in January 2006 to keep the safeguards.
‘Incitement to homophobic hatred’ law
An ‘incitement to homophobic hatred’ offence was passed in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008. The offence outlaws any threatening words or behaviour intended to stir up hatred on grounds of sexual orientation and carries a maximum seven-year prison sentence. The then Labour Government drew up the offence along the same lines as the law against inciting religious hatred but did not include an explicit free speech protection. In response the late Lord Waddington, a former Home Secretary, tabled a cross-party amendment in the House of Lords to protect free speech. The Labour Government was defeated in four separate votes in the Lords. Ministers finally conceded and brought the new incitement law into force with the free speech shield in March 2010.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims published a definition of ‘Islamophobia’ in November 2018: “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness”.299 This definition was adopted by several political parties but was rejected by the Government. An open letter to the Home Secretary criticised the definition as not being fit for purpose and carrying the danger of being used to “shut down legitimate criticism and investigation”. The letter had more than 40 signatories, including the National Secular Society, Richard Dawkins, Peter Tatchell, Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali and Baroness Cox.300
In 2003 the Labour Government introduced special employment rights for homosexuals, having agreed to an EU Directive in this area. After a long campaign by church schools, churches and Christian organisations, the Government gave an exemption in the UK laws so that such bodies are not forced to employ practising homosexuals.
Nevertheless, the legislation makes it more difficult for church schools, churches and Christian organisations to refuse to employ staff whose conduct does not match their Christian profession.
Also in 2003, the Government introduced similar regulations covering ‘religion or belief’, removing the absolute discretion of churches to employ believers in whatever posts they see fit. In theory the regulations give employment protection for religious believers in secular workplaces, but the greatest concern has been the potential to restrict the freedom of Christian organisations to employ believers.
Equality Act 2006
The Equality Act made it unlawful to discriminate against someone on the grounds of religion or belief in the provision of goods, facilities and services. It contained some exceptions for churches and religious organisations, but did not adequately protect the rights of conscience of individuals in business. Initially the Bill included religious harassment provisions but in November 2005 the House of Lords removed these because of concerns about their implications for free speech and religious liberty. The Equality Act also established the Equality and Human Rights Commission and allowed ministers to introduce the Sexual Orientation Regulations.
Sexual Orientation Regulations 2007 (SORs)
The Labour Government introduced the Sexual Orientation Regulations in April 2007. The SORs outlaw discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation in the provision of goods, facilities and services. Although religious exemptions were included to protect the core activities of churches, for example, it is now unlawful in some circumstances for Christians to act according to their religious belief that homosexual practice is morally wrong. The SORs have been used to fine Christian owners of a bed and breakfast for operating a ‘married couples only’ policy for double rooms. The 2006 Northern Ireland SORs led to the court case against Ashers Baking Company for declining to produce a cake with the slogan ‘Support Gay Marriage’. The SORs have also forced all the Roman Catholic adoption agencies in England to either close or secularise.
Equality Act 2010
The Equality Bill debated by Parliament in 2009-10 sought to consolidate all discrimination laws, including the Equality Act 2006 and the SORs, into a single Act. Yet the Labour Government’s Bill as introduced would have narrowed the employment freedom of churches and religious organisations even further than the 2003 employment laws (see above). The Government was defeated three times in the House of Lords, preventing any narrowing of the 2003 laws.
Lobbying Act 2014
The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 changed electoral law. It does not target professional lobbyists but instead hinders the work of voluntary groups and grassroots organisations.
During the passage of the Bill some 130 groups supported the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement. The pressure generated by the campaign led to various Government concessions in the Bill, though not as far-reaching as those sought by the Commission.
The law categorises illegal drugs as either class A, B or C according to their harmfulness. The classification determines the criminal penalties for possession and supply. The most harmful drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, are class A. Class B includes cannabis and speed (amphetamines) and class C includes sleeping pills.
In November 2003 Parliament approved the reclassification of cannabis from class B to class C. This came into force in 2004 across the whole of the UK. However, the drug was restored to class B in 2009 due to overwhelming evidence of cannabis damaging mental health.
There is a concerted campaign underway to dismantle the UK’s drugs legislation. Two House of Commons committees – the Health and Social Care Committee and the Scottish Affairs Committee – have called for possession of drugs for personal use to be decriminalised.301
Significant attention has focused on ‘medical cannabis’ after high-profile cases of sick children seemingly benefiting from using cannabis oils. From 1 November 2018 the law was changed to permit specialist doctors to prescribe unlicensed cannabis-derived products. This could allow products to be prescribed that have not been subject to rigorous tests and trials as medical treatments usually are. Access to cannabis-derived medicinal products has so far been limited, with campaigners arguing that the law change has not gone far enough.302 Doctors have been reluctant to prescribe cannabis without more evidence that it is safe.303
The Psychoactive Substances Act came into force in May 2016. It prohibits ‘legal highs’, which mimic the effects of banned substances such as cannabis and heroin. Also known as psychoactive substances, they were linked to 204 deaths in 2015.304
In 2005 the Labour Government passed the new Gambling Act. The Act removed restrictions controlling the worst excesses of casinos, betting shops and slot machines. It formally legalised ‘virtual casino’ machines in betting shops and elsewhere. These machines, known as fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs), have been called the ‘crack cocaine’ of gambling. The Act also greatly reduced restrictions on new casinos opening, repealed the 24-hour membership requirement and lifted the general ban on gambling advertising. In addition, slot machines with unlimited stakes and prizes were allowed for the first time. Licences were granted for 16 huge new casinos – with the smallest of them considerably bigger than most which existed before the Act. When PM, Gordon Brown rejected plans for the one super casino allowed by the legislation.305
In October 2016 the Government announced a review of gaming machines, asking whether changes should be made to maximum stakes or prizes. FOBTs allowed gamblers to stake up to £18,000 an hour. The Government announced in May 2018 that the maximum stake on FOBTs would be reduced to £2. This was implemented from April 2019.306
The Scotland Act 2016 devolved power over the number of FOBTs that are allowed per betting premises licence – but only for future licences. The Wales Act 2017 gives equivalent power to the Welsh Assembly.
Sunday trading was legalised in England and Wales in 1994, when the Sunday Trading Act allowed six hours of unregulated trading for large stores.
In 2015-16, the Government sought to further liberalise the law by giving local authorities or mayors the power to extend Sunday trading hours in their area. In March 2016 the proposed legislation was defeated by 317 votes to 286 in the Commons following cross-party opposition.
Deregulation undermines Sunday as a day of rest. It also puts pressure on employees to work on Sundays. Employee protections in legislation have proved to be weak.
The constitutional settlement in Britain provides that Britain is not a secular state. The [Protestant Reformed] Christian nature of the constitution is evident not only in the monarch’s coronation oath but also in the establishment of the Church of England.
In February 2012 a High Court judge ruled that local councils had no lawful power to hold prayers during official business. In response, the coalition Government fast-tracked the commencement of new laws which overtook the Court’s ruling. The Localism Act restored the right of councils to hold prayers as part of their formal meetings. The later Local Government (Religious etc. Observances) Act 2015 was supported by the coalition Government and the Opposition and provided the legal right for smaller councils not covered by the Localism Act to hold prayers at the start of their meetings.
Christians should be particularly concerned about any ‘party list’ system that concentrates power in the hands of the political parties and prevents the public from voting for a particular candidate. Many Christians may want to vote for a person whose views on moral issues are not the same as party policy, but such a system would compel them to vote for the party as a whole. Also, Christians often tell the Institute they are disappointed that their MP feels obliged to follow the party whip. In a ‘party list’ system of proportional representation, a political representative is entirely dependent on the party for his or her position, meaning such pressure can only grow.
Clearly there is no uniquely biblical model for how a second chamber should be organised. Yet many Christians will be concerned at any curtailment of the role of the House of Lords. In recent years it has been the House of Lords, not the Commons, that has been the more effective protector of religious liberties.