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Prayers stop access to Commons seats, protests Parliamentary Humanist Group Chair

Crispin Blunt MP, the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, has protested in the House of Commons today about the unfair process of obtaining a seat for prime minister’s questions if an MP chooses not to attend prayers.

Humanists UK welcomed the intervention and called for the process of selecting MPs’ seats to be urgently reviewed to ensure that it is fair and democratic.

Each day in each house of Parliament starts with prayers. In the Commons, MPs who attend prayers are then able to put a ‘prayer card’ in a seat to reserve it for the rest of the day. Other MPs are only able to do likewise if they can excuse themselves from prayers due to having to attend committee business. MPs who don’t wish to attend prayers nor have a committee to attend must either sit through prayers or potentially miss out on the ability to get a seat. This could stop them from being able to contribute to key debates, particularly because there are 427 seats in the Commons to 650 MPs. The Conservative benches have around 150 fewer seats than MPs. Not sitting in the chamber makes it harder to get selected to ask a question, especially during busy debates such as prime minister’s questions.

Speaking at the end of prime minister’s questions, Crispin Blunt said: ‘As someone who no longer has a relationship with God in a way that would be recognised by many, those of us who don’t have faith or subscribe to faiths other than the established Church are required to take part in prayers in order to secure a place… Mr Speaker, could you ask the doorkeepers, in advance of the committees being formed, for those of us who don’t want to take part, and don’t want to have to sit during prayers in order to secure a place available, and could you also ask the Procedure Committee, to look again at this issue in the next Parliament, so that those of us who find this uncomfortable aren’t placed in this position?’

The Speaker of the House of Commons, Lindsay Hoyle, responded by expressing his sympathy, adding that ‘he’s quite right, I think the matter needs to be taken up with the Procedure Committee, and I am sure he will continue to do so.’

Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson commented: ‘It is very understandable that some MPs will not wish to sit through prayers to a god they don’t believe in. That means that people who are represented by such MPs are put at a disadvantage, as are all others who share such MPs’ beliefs.

‘It is a fundamental matter of democracy that all constituencies and all sections of society should be equally well represented by MPs, who are equally able to take part in major debates. The system by which attendance at prayers guarantees seats is therefore a major problem that must be reviewed. As society becomes less religious over time, it will only grow in importance. We urge the Speaker and the Procedure Committee to resolve this problem urgently.’

Notes

For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK press manager Casey-Ann Seaniger at casey@humanism.org.uk or phone 020 7324 3078 or 07393 344293.

All-party parliamentary groups were dissolved at the end of the 2017-19 Parliament and the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group has not yet held its AGM to elect a new committee in the new Parliament. Therefore technically the Group does not currently have a Chair. However, Crispin was the Chair of the Group in the previous session, and intends to stand to be Chair again in the new session.

The exchange between Crispin Blunt and the Speaker in full:

Crispin Blunt: Mr Speaker, you will have noticed that it’s become even more difficult to secure a seat on this side of the House following the general election, which reinforces the point I tried to raise in the last Parliament to a letter to the then Chair of the Procedure Committee about the need to have to take part in prayers in order to secure the seat. I find it, as someone who no longer has a relationship with God in a way that would be recognised by many, those of us who don’t have faith or subscribe to faiths other than the established Church are required to take part in prayers in order to secure a place. There is the possibility of putting a pink card in with “Committee” written on it, and quite rightly, today, the doorkeepers, because there aren’t any committees yet formed, declined to make a pink card available to me.

Mr Speaker, could you ask the doorkeepers, in advance of the committees being formed, for those of us who don’t want to take part, and don’t want to have to sit during prayers in order to secure a place available, and could you also ask the Procedure Committee, to look again at this issue in the next Parliament, so that those of us who find this uncomfortable aren’t placed in this position?

The Speaker: First of all, I have sympathy. I know what it was like in 1997. What I would say is that the pink card system is something that the House has chosen to do when committees are sitting. Committees are not, and I will not instruct the doorkeepers to do something against what is procedure of this House. What I will say is that he’s quite right, I think the matter needs to be taken up with the Procedure Committee, and I am sure he will continue to do so.

Read more about Humanists UK’s work against religious discrimination in politics: https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/secularism/constitutional-reform/

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by over 85,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.

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