What Next for Religion or Belief in Wales

Following the resounding Labour victory in the Welsh Senedd elections and my previous post that looked at the priorities raised by Wales Humanists and surveyed the various manifestos, this brief post looks at what might be expected next in relation to the regulation of religion or belief in Wales.

The short answer may be ‘business as usual’. That is likely to apply to dealing with Covid, with the election results providing a vindication of the Welsh Government’s handling of the crisis. But what about other matters? Let’s return to the seven priorities raised by Wales Humanists:

1. Inclusive school assemblies to replace collective worship in schools

Education will be something to keep an eye on in the new Senedd term – and may be an area for some change now that Liberal Democrat Kirsty Williams no longer holds the brief. The Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Act 2021 has now received Royal Assent but there will be a focus on the implementation of the new curriculum- which makes Religion, Values and Ethics compulsory and goes some way to include non-religious beliefs both in the content of RVE and in the composition of local bodies responsible for drawing up the syllabus. The question will be whether the law on religious worship in schools is next for revision. Williams indicated that this would be a job for the next Parliament but will her successor agree?

2. High quality, mandatory and comprehensive relationships and sexual education in all schools

This too will be covered in the implementation of the new curriculum. It’s already mandatory on paper – the key question will be how that translates to practice.

3. Fully inclusive school admissions with no discrimination on grounds of religion

There’s nothing obviously on this in the Labour Manifesto but it may come to light as part of action on equalities. As my previous post noted, their Manifesto did not say a lot explicitly about religion or belief. The only reference was to collaborating with faith and community groups. However, there was a lot on other grounds of discrimination in the Manifesto, including taking forward the Race Equality Action Plan and teaching history and culture of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities in schools. However, on this last point, it’s unclear whether that would need any change to the Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Act 2021. During the passage of the Bill, Williams argued that this was already mandatory and did not need to be spelled out in legislation. It remains to be seen whether her successor agrees. The fact that Plaid Cymru (who insisted on this being enshrined in legislation) is not a coalition partner makes legislative change on this less likely – it’s more likely to come up as part of the implementation process.

4. Non-religious chaplaincy to have same status and support as religious chaplaincy

Given the pandemic, a sustained focus on health is to be expected in the new Senedd term but it’s unlikely that Welsh Humanist concerns about the lack of parity between religious and non-religious chaplaincy is going to be at the top of the list of priorities. So this is something for the humanists to lobby for, I’d imagine.

5. Humanists to have membership of the Faith Communities Forum or fair and equal access to the First Minister and ministerial meetings

Again, nothing explicit on this in the manifesto (somewhat unsurprisingly) but it may come up as part of a renewed focus on equalities. I suspect, however, that this is more of a priority for the Wales Humanists than the Government and so again should be a matter of lobbying from them.

6. Advocation of legal recognition of humanist marriages (not a devolved matter so advocacy sought)

Again, the manifesto was silent on this and there was no mention of seeking devolved powers over marriage law. But this may well come up in consequence of the Law Commission’s forthcoming report on this. More widely, however, the question of increasing devolved powers is expected to feature on the agenda – First Minister Mark Drakeford has indicated that this is so. The manifesto pledged to consider devolution of justice, for instance.

7. Opposition against any moves by Westminster Government to weaken human rights legislation

The Wales Humanists before the election named as a priority opposing any moves by Westminster Government to weaken human rights legislation. This may raise its head in the new Senedd term as part of wider constitutional reform. The Labour Manifesto included a pledge for research into a ‘Human Rights Act for Wales’ and the development of ‘Codes of Welsh law, making it easier for people to access and understand their legal rights’ on housing, social care, public health, and schools.

Conclusion

Predicting the future is a mug’s game. It will remain to be seen what the legislative priorities are for the new Welsh Government and how these affect the regulation of religion or belief. It is clear, however, that as devolution in Wales comes up to its 25th anniversary, the law on religion or belief in Wales is increasingly different to that in England. The radical reforms in relation to Religion, Values and Ethics in the last Senedd term underscore this and have led to the expectation of further divergence. A distinct Welsh law on religion or belief, which pays more attention to the word ‘belief’ than its English counterpart, is already starting to emerge.

Photo of me at the Senedd
(in Sept 2019, just before attending a comedy gig in the building)

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