Labour peer and distinguished supporter of Humanism
Lord Harrison was born in 1947 and educated at Oxford School, the University of Warwick (BA), the University of Sussex (MA) and the University of Keele (MA). He became an MEP in 1989 and was made a Labour life peer in 1999.
He is a member of the Parliamentary Humanist Group, and has supported humanist causes including asking for information on humanist ceremonies and initiating a debate in the House of Lords on 20/4/07 on “the position in British society of those who profess no religion”. In the debate he said:
…It is time to speak up, especially as a more strident note is now sounding. The Anglicanism of my youth, more sedative than stimulant, now gives way to the harsher tones of those like the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York, who describes us as “illiberal atheists” and “aggressive secularists”… My debate today seeks to rebut those charges and to tabulate those areas of public life where we feel unacknowledged, unprized and under-represented. I hope, too, to ponder on what government and the wider community might do to reflect better this modern and more secular Britain that is developing, in particular in its public policies and institutions.
In that, I call for fair play. I invite our religious colleagues to debate how we can find common ground to establish a new consensus…
…I am particularly perturbed by the Government’s companion paper, entitled Building Civil Renewal , which apparently encourages civil servants to dilute the strength of the secular voice, “by preparing to mount publicity and media-handling strategies to answer adverse criticism from the secular quarter”. That is neither wise nor even-handed. Groups such as the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association, of which I am a member, should be encouraged, not discouraged, from commenting on the development or the framing of relevant laws and policies. Had those groups been dispassionately asked and thoughtfully answered, some of the rough edges of legislation regarding religious hatred or religious schools might well have sat better with the very communities such laws are designed to serve.
…The various standing advisory panels set up by the Government to garner the views of religious groups forgo — indeed, avoid — the contribution that non-churchgoers might proffer. So too with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Religious Freedom Panel, bereft as it is of the humanist voice. Also, the chaplaincy services found in the armed services, in NHS hospitals and the Prison Service—important services offering comfort and advice—are provided exclusively by the church. Why should they not be extended beyond that? After all, our prisons are not overcrowded with regular churchgoers.
I harbour anxieties that the Government are devolving community services to religiously motivated groups and that it will further erode the clear principle that public funds should be disbursed in a non-discriminatory manner…
In the same debate Lord Judd referred to Lord Harrison’s ‘warm engagement with the realities of society, what people are really encountering out there and what really makes society, at the grassroots, tick. It is always good’, he added, ‘that he challenges us [the Lords] with those perceptions.’
Lord Harrison appeared on BBC R4’s Today programme on 19/4/07, arguing with Peter Hitchens of theMail on Sunday about whether religious people have a privileged position in society. In July 2001 he and Lady Harrison were amongst the signatories to a letter published in The Independent which urged the Government to reconsider its support for the expansion of maintained religious schools.