Principal local authorities in England are now able to use the general power of competence contained in the Localism Act after Communities Secretary Eric Pickles signed a Parliamentary Commencement Order at the weekend.
The move was a response to Mr Justice Ouseley’s High Court ruling that s. 111 of the Local Government Act did not give Bideford Town Council the power to hold prayers as part of formal business.
The Department for Communities and Local Government said the signing of the order meant principal local authorities – London boroughs, the Isles of Scilly as well as all county, district, metropolitan and unitary authorities – could use the general power of competence with immediate effect.
Parishes meeting certain specified conditions will be able to use the power after due Parliamentary process by April.
The Parliamentary Commencement Order also means wider powers for English fire and rescue authorities, integrated transport authorities, passenger transport executives combined authorities and economic prosperity boards have come into effect.
Under the general power of competence, local authorities are able to do anything an individual can do unless specifically prohibited by law.
“Local councils now have a power that should enable them to continue to include prayers as part of the formal business at council meetings, if they wish, and thereby maintain the common practice in council meetings across the country,” the DCLG said.
Bideford Town Council passed a resolution last Thursday approving an appeal of Mr Justice Ouseley’s ruling, subject to receiving confirmation that costs would be indemnified.
Eric Pickles said: "The High Court judgement has far wider significance than just the municipal agenda of Bideford Town Council. For too long, faith has been marginalised in public life, undermining the very foundations of the British nation.”
The Communities Secretary claimed that the general power of competence “should effectively overtake the ruling”.
He added: “It also shows that greater localism can give local councils the strength and freedom to act in their best interests. We will stand for freedom to worship, for Parliamentary sovereignty, and for long-standing British liberties."
The order does not apply to local authorities in Wales after the Welsh Assembly Government refused the government’s offer to include Welsh councils in the general power of competence. The Assembly has power to legislate in this area.
The Welsh Assembly Government has said Welsh fire and rescue authorities will not have access to the general power of competence until April 2012.
See also: The power of prayer or the power to pray by David Lawson of Hardwicke.