BY JOE JENKINS
SENIOR LABOUR peers sent an uncompromising message to their parliamentary colleagues last week: the party always comes first.
The Catholic Herald has learnt that a group of prominent Labour lords promised Baroness Young last Thursday that they would defy the Labour whip and abstain, rather than opposing crucial amendments designed to safeguard religious liberties at risk from the Human Rights Bill. But in a last-minute U-turn, and acting under a three-line whip, the group voted with the Government.
However, the amendments, sponsored by Baroness Young, Lord Longford and the Bishop of Ripon, were passed by 168 votes to 131. The victory was hailed by supporters of Baroness Young as "a very encouraging result".
Baroness Young this week confirmed that a deal had been struck with a group of senior Labour peers. However, the deal was scuppered when Government whips went to work. As one campaign source put it, "Labour really did pull out all the stops."
Baroness Young told the Catholic Herald that she was pleased with the support her amendments had won, particularly from the seven Anglican bishops who voted with her. But she said that she was disappointed at the action of the peers who she believed were aware of the serious threat posed by the Bill, but she was generous in victory. "A lot of them had immense pressure brought to bear on them," she said.
Baroness Young urged Catholics to "keep up the pressure" on the Government and said she hoped that Cardinal Hume would ask Catholic MPs to rally behind opposition to the Bill when it reaches the Commons, which could be as soon as Monday.
If it is ultimately passed by Parliament, the Bill will bring the British constitution into line with European law It would leave individuals and institutions open to prosecution for holding religious beliefs. One fear is that denominational schools will no longer be able to assert their existing rights of selection on religious grounds. Hospices, adoption agencies and charities could also be affected.
Paul Diamond, a lawyer and adviser to Baroness Young, said: "Churches will be sued under this legislation. They will also be affected by the way existing legis
lation, such as employment law, is interpreted in line with the Convention. Judges will be forced to adjudicate on what are essentially theological and moral issues, "Baroness Young has secured some important protections. It is vital for religious liberties that the House of Commons does not overturn them."
The Government position on the Bill throws in to doubt its much vaunted injection of a Christian ethos into public life. Critics of Mr Blair claim he has made much capital of his AngloCatholicism and his marriage to Cherie Booth, a Catholic, but campaigners against the Human Rights Bill, perceived as a threat to all the faiths, have had their confidence in the Government dented by this latest rally against the amendments. Colin Hart, Director of the Christian Institute, which supported Baroness Young, said that he hoped that when the Bill is put before MPs it does not "precipitate a full-scale clash" with the Government.
"It's wrong to sue people just because they are religious," he said. "These amendments mean that Churches and the non-Christian faiths will at least have a defence in Court. The Christian Institute has put a great deal of work into this result, but the fight is not over yet."
A Christian Institute colleague said: "It'll be vital that Christians take up this campaign."