- Conscience and the Commons
Following his election as Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron was grilled by the media about his beliefs as an evangelical Christian. Has the focus on faith, which began with Tony Blair, reached the point where it is harder than ever to hold religious beliefs and play an active role in political life?
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A Conservative MP has called on the Government to reconsider its stipulation that only 50 per cent of places at free schools be reserved for pupils who practice the faith represented by the school, during a special debate in Parliament on Catholic education and admissions policy.
Speaking in Westminster Hall last week, Damian Hinds, the Catholic MP for East Hampshire, suggested that the Department for Education consider piloting a Catholic free school without the 50 per cent cap.
The policy of capping pupils selected by faith did not feature in the coalition agreement but was introduced as part of the Academies Act in 2010 by the Education Secretary Michael Gove. Last November, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference decided to oppose the opening of new free schools because of the cap.
Mr Hinds said that while the policy was “well intentioned”, it "precludes the creation of Catholic free schools, because the Catholic Church feels unable to support, with all the implications of commitment that that brings".
However, David Laws, the Liberal Democrat Minister of State for Schools, defended the Government’s policy and said: “I urge the Catholic faith in this country not to think of itself as providing schools to serve only people of the Catholic faith. In a society where all religions seem to be struggling to keep people engaged", said Mr Laws, "faiths such as Catholicism should welcome the fact that many parents want their children to attend those schools even if they are not of the faith."
Labour’s Kevin Brennan, the Shadow Minster for Education, opposed ending the cap but praised Catholic schools, which he said "are extremely diverse, often with large numbers of people from immigrant backgrounds."
The tone of the debate was welcomed by Greg Pope, Deputy Director of the Catholic Education Service. “The success of Catholic education is founded upon the hard work of staff and pupils and it is right that MPs should praise their ongoing achievements,” he said. “The CES will continue to work closely with both the Government and the opposition to ensure that Catholic schools provide a high standard of education to all families who seek it."