Eric Pickles was the Conservative MP for Brentwood and Ongar from 1992 until he stood down at the 2017 general election. In the 2010-2015 coalition government he was Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.
In May 2008 in the abortion amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill (now Act), Eric Pickles voted for the abortion time limit to be lowered to 20 weeks against scientific and medical consensus which is currently 24 weeks. After four separate parliamentary votes on varying time limits, the majority of MPs voted to keep the abortion time limit at 24 weeks, in keeping with scientific and medical consensus, hence no abortion amendments were added to the bill.
In February 2015 Eric Pickles voted in favour of allowing mitochondrial donation, which would allow women who carried mitochondrial diseases to give birth to children who would not inherit the disease. An October 2014 briefing report by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), which had been investigating the issue for three years, stated that there was no evidence to show that mitochondrial donation was unsafe. However, some religious groups had said that such procedures should not be allowed. After clearing both Houses mitochondrial donation is now legal, regulated by the HFEA.
In October 2010, Eric Pickles was reported to have said that "Tolerance and freedom of expression are important British values, but this does not mean that the likes of Church of Scientology deserve favoured tax treatment over and above other business premises". This was shortly after a BBC Panorama documentary about the organisation by John Sweeney had brought attention to apparent rate reductions given to the Church by Westminster City Council. Pickles stated that "The Church of Scientology is not a registered charity, since the Charity Commission has ruled that it does not provide a public benefit. Nor are its premises a recognised place of worship".
Prayers at Local Council Meetings
In February 2012 the High Court ruled that Bideford Town Council saying prayers at the start of their meetings was unlawful as there was no specific statutory power permitting them, which is required for any council activity under a 1972 Act. The legal action had been brought by the National Secular Society and in quotes they framed the issue in terms of the secular environment of the meetings and freedom of religion. Following the judgement, Eric Pickles was quoted describing the ruling as "surprising and disappointing", and saying that "Public authorities - be it Parliament or a parish council - should have the right to say prayers before meetings if they wish." He also tweeted "Localism Act gives councils power of general competence, logically this includes ability to pray before meetings" and "I believe right to worship is a fundamental and hard fought British liberty". (The Localism Act referred to in the first tweet was in the process of going through parliament at the time – see http://www.communities.gov.uk/publications/localgovernment/localismplainenglishupdate).
A week later it was reported that Mr Pickles had "fast tracked" the Localism Act and in his view this would allow councils to have prayers at meetings. Pickles spoke to the press saying "I don't think anyone is forced to sit through prayer sessions" and that what he was doing was standing up for religious tolerance and religious freedom.
A Christian Nation
In September 2012 Mr Pickles wrote an article in which he defended the idea that Britain is a Christian nation and that this is a positive thing. It is worth reading in its entirety, but here are some selections:
- "Christians continue to be positively involved in public life, from the role of Anglican bishops in scrutinising legislation in the House of Lords, through the moral leadership offered by Christian leaders, to the contribution of thousands of churches and Christian charities to the social fabric of our neighbourhoods with their volunteering and sacrifice."
- "Faith communities provide a clear moral compass and a call to action that benefits society as a whole – and the Government is grateful for this. The Coalition has an explicit “integration” strategy to bring communities together. While we should confront extremists who spread hate and division, I believe that mainstream, tolerant religion binds society together.
- "At a time when Christians are under attack for their beliefs in different parts of the world, I am proud of the freedom of belief that exists in Britain. But there is no room for complacency. To suggest that Christians in our country are literally persecuted would be to demean the suffering of those around the world facing repression, imprisonment and death. We should, however, recognise that long-standing British liberties of freedom of religion have been undermined in recent years by aggressive secularism, especially in the more politically correct parts of the public sector."
In February 2012 same-sex marriage was in the media, with some religious groups stating their opposition to any government plans to "redefine marriage". In March 2012 Mr Pickles appeared on BBC's Question Time and responded to a question on same-sex marriage:
- "Well, I have to say, I've rather changed my mind on this, in recent years. I think I'm rather in favour of gay marriages. And, I have to say that what I've just heard has made me rather glad I have changed my mind. I've seen people in civic partnerships, and the difference between friends of mine who are gay and have now entered into this. It's given them a degree of stability, certainty about the future, and I think if people want to make a commitment to one another, to agree to support one another, to look after one another in sickness and in health, then I think the state should provide that facility."
He also made it clear that they were not going to force churches to provide same-sex marriage services.