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Session 2002 - 03
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 and Draft Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003

Fourth Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation

Tuesday 17 June 2003

[Miss Ann Widdecombe in the Chair]

Draft Employment Equality
(Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003

Draft Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003

2.30 pm

The Chairman: Is it the wish of the Committee that the instruments be debated together?

Hon. Members: Object.

The Minister for Employment Relations, Competition and Consumers (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003.

I welcome you to the Chair, Miss Widdecombe. I look forward to what will now be a wonderful afternoon. There is no protection at the moment for those who experience discrimination at work on grounds of their religion, belief or sexual orientation. Gay men and lesbians continue to find themselves at a disadvantage in the workplace, all too often as a result of intimidating, hostile or degrading treatment by their managers.

The Chairman: Order. We are debating the two orders separately. Each hon. Member who speaks, including the Minister, must confine his or her comments to the order under discussion, which is—for the hon. Gentleman's convenience—the religion or belief order.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I apologise to the Committee, Miss Widdecombe. I am in some difficulty in that the order of debate is not the one that was expected by my officials.

The provisions provide new rights for people. In the year 2000, the United Kingdom took an active role in negotiating the employment directive. Establishing a general framework to tackle discrimination at work throughout Europe has been a significant achievement. We are committed to ensuring that it has a real impact on the ground, starting in December this year.

Members of Muslim, Sikh, Jewish and other communities have been dismissed, victimised and turned down for work unfairly, simply because of their faith. The regulations are designed to outlaw such unacceptable treatment. They have a wide application.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Sutcliffe: May I make a little progress first? The regulations cover employment and training throughout England, Scotland and Wales, whatever the size of the organisation, whether in the public or private sector. They represent a significant addition to

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our domestic equality legislation and will make a practical difference to the lives of millions of people. They should be welcomed.

Mr. Robathan: At the heart of the regulations is the fact that people are discriminated against on the basis of their religion. When people seek Muslim religion, often race comes into it. What examples does the Minister have of white Muslims being discriminated against in employment?

Mr. Sutcliffe: If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I want to get further into the debate, at which time I am sure that examples will be teased out and answers given.

It is disappointing that, on such important and sensitive issues, public debate has been driven in the past few weeks by misleading comments in the press. We shall see the impact of the regulations in December this year. With that in mind, we have made a considerable investment in working with a wide range of stakeholders. In addition to bilateral meetings, seminars, conferences and online research, there have been no fewer than three national consultation exercises in the past three years, prompting just short of 4,000 submissions. By any standards, that is an excellent return. We are grateful to those, particularly representative organisations, who have devoted their time to offer views and suggestions. They have provided a substantial body of evidence on which to base decisions.

Consultation showed that people thought coherence important, but not if the needs of particular groups were to be ignored. In preparing the legislation, we have been open to new approaches where appropriate and necessary. However, our driving principle has been to ensure that the religion regulations are consistent with requirements on other strands, whenever practicable. For example, regulations outlaw direct discrimination on the grounds of religion rather than the religion of the complainant. The form of words mirrors that in the Race Relations Act 1976. It enables workers to complain if they are placed at a disadvantage in the workplace simply because they are thought to have a particular characteristic, whether or not that assumption is correct, or if they ''associate'' with people of a particular religion or belief. It is important that the regulations will outlaw that detrimental treatment in religion and belief, as well as the more obvious direct discrimination.

The regulations contain a definition of indirect discrimination that is consistent with the changes that we have made to the Race Relations Act. An employee will be able to complain if a working practice places him and people of the same orientation or belief at a significant disadvantage. Complainants will be able to rely on evidence other than statistical information. That is an important point. We know that accurate data on sensitive issues are difficult to collect in the workplace.

For the first time in United Kingdom discrimination legislation, the regulations include explicit protection against harassment. Again, the definition is that in the regulations on race and

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disability that were laid before Parliament last month. Our working assumption is that the same definition will be appropriate for age. It will ensure that employers take action against inappropriate behaviour, not just about matters that are openly vindictive or violent, but more insidious treatment as well.

The regulations outlaw victimisation in much the same way as existing equality legislation. They allow for positive action. Complaints made under the regulations will be considered by the employment tribunals in the first instance, in the same way as complaints that are made on grounds of sex, race and disability. Employers who have an understanding of their responsibilities in respect of sex, race and disability should be familiar with the concepts enshrined in the regulations.

A consistent approach makes the process of implementation more straightforward and should lead more quickly to results. Consistency of provisions in equality law makes sense for individuals, particularly those who are the subject of discrimination on more than one ground.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): Under regulation 4 of the religious discrimination regulations, entitled, ''Discrimination by way of victimisation'', there is a comparator for the purposes of the definition. Can the Minister clarify why he has introduced regulations that use a comparator, such as,

    ''if he treats B less favourably than he treats or would treat other persons in the same circumstances''?

There was an alternative, which was not to have a comparator. Does not the comparator narrow the range of discrimination, making it more difficult for an employee to claim discrimination?

Mr. Sutcliffe: Will the hon. Gentleman repeat what he just said? I apologise, but I have just had a note thrust at me.

Dr. Harris: I understand the Minister's position. It is a baptism of fire, if he will excuse the religious expression. Can he explain why, under regulation 4, he has chosen to use a comparator,

    ''if he treats B less favourably than he treats or would treat other persons in the same circumstances''?

It could be argued that the introduction of a comparator narrows the scope for employees to allege discrimination. An alternative would have been not to have a comparator, but for there to be the ability to claim, and for the court to decide on the facts, without needing to show a comparison.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I apologise for asking him to make the point twice. I accept his description of my circumstances.

We are trying to be consistent. Under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, the route that we are adopting follows the usual discrimination law procedure. We are not moving away from that or doing anything out of the ordinary.

The exception for jobs for the purposes of organised religion is unique to the regulations. I know that there has been confusion between that exception and that in

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the original regulations. That exception applied when an employer had an ethos based on religion or belief. In those circumstances, it may be a genuine occupational requirement, having regard to that employer's ethos and the nature of the job or the context in which it is carried out, for the post holder to have a particular belief, but not a particular orientation.

Mr. Robathan: As the Minister will know, I am rather new to such matters, too. Is he referring to regulation 7 of the other order?

Mr. Sutcliffe: Not that I am aware of, but I stand to be corrected. If that is the case, I will put the record straight. I understand that the order applies to religious belief.

The exception to the regulations applies where an employer has an ethos based on religion or belief. In those circumstances, it may be a genuine occupational requirement, having regard to that employer's ethos and the nature of the job or the context in which it is carried out, for employees to have a particular belief, but not a particular orientation. It is reasonable to expect most companies to have conduct rules, and there is no reason to expect religious organisations to be any different. If anyone thinks that provisions about conduct will allow discrimination against gay men and lesbians by stealth, let me make this clear—

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): On a point of order, Miss Widdecombe. I am having to tear my speech into parts, to enable me address the issues separately. We cannot have one rule for the Minister and another for Back Benchers. Are we talking about religion only, or are we allowing the Minister to talk about both issues?


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