Lucy Powell MP
How would you describe your religious/ideological identity?
I am an Atheist.
What made you choose this, or choose to remain if this was a tradition you grew up in?
Well, I don’t believe in God. I come from a scientific background and I don’t believe there is a higher being. I was exposed to religion as a child. My grandparents were very Catholic, my mum was brought up as a Catholic. I went to church mostly with my grandparents. So, I was exposed to religion. I couldn’t identify a moment in which I reached the conclusion that I was an Atheist, but when I was 9, 10 or 11… when I started asking myself or my parents questions about God and religion. My dad was an Atheist. So, the things I was exposed to through my grandparents… he was quite adamant that they were not true. I guess I was more influenced by my dad, but I think it is something I was always confident about.
Do you think Great Britain, particularly England, is an equal and tolerant society, mainly in relation to religion and belief?
It aims to be. You see it in a lot of our laws. They are there to support those aims, but obviously how people are treated in reality, day to day, I think there is still a lot of prejudice there about some particular faiths.
How easy is it for you to live in accordance with your Atheism in Great Britain?
It is very easy for me to live as an Atheist. If I were Muslim, I think it would be harder. Certainly, that is what I have come across.
Could you identify any challenges, social, political or legal in nature?
I don’t think so really. I mean… if you press me on it, I guess that probably there is still a broader preference, politically speaking, for people who have a religion… maybe… for the very top layers of society, maybe… I don’t really know. I don’t know who the last Atheist Prime Minister was, if we had any. Personally, I have never come across prejudices, but it is not something that I would shout loudly about anyway.
Can you think of any examples in which identified Atheists have an impact on the way which human rights are understood in Great Britain?
No, I cannot think of any examples.
When you campaign on any particular issues, do you do it as an Atheist?
No, as a politician you keep those things private. Whether it is at constituency level or national level, I respect other people’s views. I totally respect that many people have strong held religious views, they passionately believe in their God or Gods, and I would never judge anybody else’s views ever. I think I need to be extremely respectful for other people’s beliefs, and I have never come into a conversation about faith… I think in fact this is the first conversation I have had about this topic since I became a MP!
It is not something I talk about much, and I would certainly not judge other people for their faiths or beliefs.
Do you think that HRs are generally respected by the Government and other public bodies in the UK?
Yes, because there are lots of laws ensuring that they are, but the actual operational side of that, I think in reality does not always work. I think, you know, that at the moment it is difficult for people to get legal aid to defend their rights, for example. It is becoming increasingly difficult. There is a lot of political discourse which is anti the protection of human rights, for example. That is making people less confident about supporting their own human rights, and so on. I think as a country we have protection of human rights, but that does not always translate to reality.
Do you think in Great Britain public authorities intervene too much or not enough in the lives of individuals and groups, both in general and specifically in relation to freedom of religion and belief?
I think it is different in different places. So much of these issues depend… in fact, I was talking earlier about the Prevent Programme, which tries to flag up at an early stage warning signs… the principles of that programme are very good indeed, but how they actually operate is very difficult, and a lot of the time it is about training individuals, how they understand these programmes, how they understand their roles and too often the interpretation of these, either programmes or policies, is left too open at grassroots level. We can do a lot about building awareness. The framework is often there. You can come across examples where the balance is too much one way, or too much the other way.
Do you think that living in a Parliamentary democratic society makes it easier or harder for you to live in accordance with your convictions? Is there any other form of government which you would consider preferable?
No. Yes, I think it helps to develop a tolerant, open and cohesive society, and I don’t think there any other models which would work better.
Given that we live in a democracy, do you think that you have a personal responsibility to vote?
Is it good or bad that the Parliament has the final say in making and changing British law? E.g. Should judges have the power to strike down some laws and if so, on what basis?
No, I think we probably got the right balance here. Obviously, the development of the Supreme Court here, that has a stronger say in the interpretation of laws, and they have more freedom to do so than they used to have… but I think it should be about a democratically elected Parliament…. You could have another argument, it may be one of your other questions, which is about how democratic our democracy is… I have always supported more proportional representation is… the executive in this country has very strong powers to change laws really without a huge amount of scrutiny. I would change that, but I wouldn’t change the role of Parliament.
There are very different understandings of democracy, as you know, and one of the understandings is that it is the will of the majority of the people. Do you think this is problematic for minority groups in Great Britain? Do you think that Parliamentary democracy is inclusive of all groups and citizens in society, or is it more difficult for some people to participate?
It probably is more difficult for some people to participate. I am, indeed, somebody who supports a more proportional voting system, in order to hear other voices. We should also think of ways of reforming the House of Lords, to include other people in the Second Chamber too.
Do you think that it is problematic that members of the House of Lords are not elected directly by the citizens?
Yes, I do, because I think it should be an elected Chamber. That would make it more accountable and responsive. However, you probably have more experts and less politicians than you would otherwise have. So, I think that when we discuss how to reform the House of Lords, we must also think of how to keep some of the experts, because I think the expertise that they can bring is very important.
Obviously, you are aware of the presence of Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords. Is it defensible?
Not really. I think that is something that will have to be looked at as part of the reform of the House of Lords. I would like to see them go at some point.
Do you think that openly Atheists are proportionately and appropriately represented in terms of members of Parliament, local authorities and the judiciary? Would you say that the values and insights of Atheists have a particular contribution to make?
I think they do. I wouldn’t know if they are proportionately and appropriately represented in the bodies which you have mentioned. I wouldn’t really know the faith of my colleagues. Sometimes something comes along and you can see that people are of faith.
Do you think that there is enough distance in Great Britain between the people who make law/policy and the people who deliver and interpret the law? Do you think that the judiciary are sufficiently independent, or are judges too closely linked with politicians?
I don’t know really… I think so. Obviously they have to interpret the will of Parliament appropriately, but obviously if they do it incorrectly, I think there should be powers to correct that. So, I think so, broadly they are independent… but I am not an expert on this.
Do you think that Atheists are brought together in Great Britain as a group?
How do Atheists help to challenge decisions which they perceive as problematic, either for their members or for society as a whole?
I don’t think I have really made a decision as an Atheist. I never have thought this was a problem. And anyway, our society is more liberal… So, I think my views are the views of mainstream society. If you think of big issues like gay marriage, for example, there were religious groups which had concerns about that legislation. Their views did not prevail.
Is it important for you personally always to act within secular law? Why/why not? What circumstances, if any, justify breaking human law?
Yes, it is important. I could not really think of any law at the moment which I could not morally uphold.
Do your beliefs require you to speak out against injustices affecting third parties, particularly the weak and the vulnerable?
Do you think that the Rule of Law is applied equally to everyone in British society? Do some groups experience preferential or prejudicial treatment from public bodies (e.g. schools, the criminal justice system)?
Yes, they do, not knowingly, but it happens. I think people of different backgrounds… often there are assumptions about people. For example, former criminals, you know… when they serve their time, people treat them very badly in terms of employment and future prospects, how they get treated even if they have become completely different people. Those convictions seem to follow them their whole lives. They would be discriminated against…. Or for faith reasons, I think there is still a lot of antisemitism or islamophobia… it is hard to accept it, but those situations happen in society more generally.
Do you have any idea of how the UK compares to other countries in this regard?
I think we have a more integrated society than other European countries, even countries like France or Germany indeed. They still have more ghettoised communities. We have seen it recently in Belgium, for example. We are probably there at the top in terms of tolerance, integration and cohesion.
Should the same rules which apply to private citizens apply equally to public authorities including the police? In other words, I would like to learn your views about the developments which have seen in the course of the last few years concerning the police powers?
I think the police should be subject to the same rules as everybody else. We have seen lots of issues with the police in the last few years. A culture has been allowed to develop… Hillsborough, police undercover, etc… So, we could continue asking questions and they should be subject to the Rule of Law as everybody else.
I think it is a last resort mechanism for the police to use additional powers and they should be conceived as a last resort mechanism indeed. When we have people who are suspect of terrorism, for example, the use of asbos for instance maybe a necessary development, but again the important thing is how they are actually implemented.
A final question if I may… as you have seen many questions were geared towards your membership to a group, but you have stated that you don’t feel you belong to an Atheist group… I wonder if you feel represented by groups such as the BHA or the NSS…
No. They offer an important voice and I have dealings with them as a MP, but not as someone who has similar views. I don’t feel a particular strong identity as an Atheist. It is just my choice about my faith or lack of it. Sorry, I really need to rush!!!
Lucy is the Labour and Co-operative Member of Parliament for Manchester Central. Elected in a by-election in November 2012, she became the first female Labour MP to represent a Manchester constituency. Lucy was born and brought up in Manchester, attending Parrs Wood High School and Xaverian Sixth Form College, before going onto study Chemistry at Oxford University and King’s College London. She now lives in the city with her husband, James, and their three children.
Before becoming an MP Lucy led a major investment project in Manchester for NESTA, the UK’s innovation agency, working with local businesses and other partners to support start-ups and creative companies. This investment programme brought over £10million to the city between 2007-2010, and created many new jobs.
Since her election Lucy has campaigned against the Government’s cuts to Manchester’s public services, the privatisation of the ambulance services and the Bedroom Tax. She has been a passionate advocate of better childcare provision, advancing social mobility through education and more apprenticeships for young people.