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30th October 2006 Clare Fisher

Evan Harris, MP: “Sex, drugs, religion and politics”

As the title of the talk suggests, Exeter students were treated to a lively and rather out of the ordinary talk on the current political situation from Evan Harris, Liberal-Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon.

Harris began by criticizing the government’s “control freakery” (although he described this as an “understatement”) and evasion of issues surrounding sex and religion. He accuses them of “control freakery” on the basis of their extensive use of Whip votes for “conscience” issues such as the blasphemy law which are subject to private belief and thus have traditionally been free-vote issues. Harris pointed out that the government even had to be persuaded to allow a free-vote on embryonic stem cell research and reproductive cloning. As for abortion, Harris underlined that the government has not only managed to avoid any votes on the issues, but has not even debated it since 1991, which he deemed “outrageous, democratically speaking.” This is because, according to Harris, it is vital that parliament debates and reviews legislation on non-party issues after elections if they are to continue to be respected.

The Racial and Religious Hatred Bill and the government’s attitude to assisted death and Faith schools were highlighted by Harris as demonstrating the “crisis of the impinging of religiosity on the State”. As a leading campaigner for the National Secular Society, this is one of his key concerns. Harris was a key figure behind the successful move to “ambush” the vote on the religious hatred Bill as he considered it a dangerous step away from free speech. He suggested that it was simply a way for the government to make up for the loss of Muslim support caused by the war on terror, since it was only put forward in response to demands made by the Muslim council of Britain. The government’s silence over assisted death (despite overwhelming public approval in polls) demonstrates that it is unwilling to tackle the religious lobby when it is united. Harris was particularly critical of government plans to introduce more faith schools, including proposals to introduce a “faith test” for head teachers and up to 25% of teaching staff of such schools. He used the example of Northern Ireland to point out that separating young people along religious and racial grounds ultimately results in hatred and unrest. During his enthusiastic acceptance of the challenges and questions from the audience, he was keen to argue that he did not disagree with the religious lobby’s right to exist but that he was against the preferential treatment of faith communities as opposed to non-faith ones.As evidence, he cited special meetings between religious leaders and ministers, faith schools and the huge amount of government funds put into “inter-faith” work .

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