Sex Discrimination (Clubs and Other Private Associations) Bill

[back to previous text]

Jim Knight: I used to be an actor, and I promoted the arts. I oppose any measure that would interfere with people's artistic rights to interpret and cast in a way that put across a particular point. Someone could cast a whole production according to race in order to make an artistic point as part of an interpretation, and I should be amazed if that was not in common under race relations legislation.

David Wright: Indeed. The point of the Bill is that it relates to discrimination against men or women. What it tries to achieve is very narrow, and it relates to the Sex Discrimination Act. Hon. Members will have to refer to the Race Relations Act if they want to look at the issue in more detail. The Bill deals specifically with discrimination in respect of men and women who would be members of private clubs.

Peter Bottomley: So, if a club decided to put on a ballet, where both male and female parts were taken by a single sex, would that be lawful or unlawful? I know that that can happen in the commercial theatre but I am not sure about private clubs.What would happen if a private club wanted to put on a pantomime? Would it be lawful to insist that the dame was a woman, or the principal boy male?

David Wright: It is lawful for those events to proceed, as the hon. Gentleman knows. As far as I am aware, such pantomimes could continue, as the Bill would not relate to them. It ensures, in terms of the authenticity of drama productions, that people are allowed to proceed and cast accordingly.

Peter Bottomley: I do not dispute the hon. Gentleman's point now, but he may want to consider the detail of the Bill before Report, which will not be a very long time distant if there are no amendments in Committee. The question is not what the Bill's objective is, but what it will do if it becomes an Act.

Column Number: 11

That issue should have detailed consideration, if not on Report, then in another place, or else we may make a pantomime out of the exception to the pantomime.

David Wright: As far as I am aware, the law is clear on the matter. The point is about authenticity, and organisations would be able to pursue performances that are authentic. That would relate to pantomimes or any other performance. That is my understanding of the Bill; it is a specific Bill dealing with sex discrimination against men or women in private members' clubs. I could reply to the hon. Gentleman on Report, if he is interested, but the objectives of the Bill are narrow.

5 pm

The other exception provides that an association for members of a religion does not discriminate if it restricts membership, or the terms thereof, or access to any benefits, facilities or services to one sex in order to comply with the doctrines of the religion and avoid offending the religious sensibilities of a significant number of its followers. The exception would not give an association an absolute right to discriminate just because it existed for members of a religion. It would apply only where the restriction was for religious reasons. Therefore, a Muslim community organisation might be able to demonstrate that there was a religious basis for segregating some of its activities, because the tenets of the religion required that men and women did not mix for those purposes. However, a Catholic social club could not claim the exception as a basis for refusing women members access to the snooker room. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) will be pleased to hear that.

Clause 2 will make it possible for clubs that wish to do so to take steps to encourage a more balanced membership and more equal representation in their governance. A number of Rotary clubs, for example, which were previously for men only, have opened their doors to women but find that few are choosing to join or take office. Such a club would, without discriminating unlawfully, be able to take steps to encourage women to join, or to provide training to women members to prepare them to join the committee or take up posts.

Mr. Randall: I think that the Rotary organisation has a parallel women's organisation. Although many Rotary clubs have women members, the opposite does not apply to the women's organisations. Would the exemption that the hon. Gentleman mentioned allow the women-only sections of a Rotary club—I think that they are called the ''inner wheel''—to continue as they are?

David Wright: As far as I am aware, that would be allowed to continue if it were within the parameters promoting women's membership in the club. I shall have to check that detail in relation to Rotary clubs. They would be allowed to continue where they are promoting increased women's membership.

Column Number: 12

The exception would not allow discrimination in membership or selection for office in the club. Employers and trade unions are already permitted by the Sex Discrimination Act to take such steps where women are under-represented among those doing particular work, or among their membership. The test for under-representation will be the same. Clubs, like trade unions, will also be able to create or reserve seats for members of one sex on committees, or other elected bodies, in the interests of ensuring that there is a minimum reasonable level of representation.

The Bill will not impose any requirements on clubs to take positive steps of any kind, but I like to think that many will wish to do so, particularly when they are seeking to overcome a history of exclusion of women from membership or governance. I am convinced that clubs have a great deal to gain from making full use of the energy and talents of people who have been sidelined until now. Many clubs have made repeated efforts to change rules that discriminate against women, only to be frustrated by a blocking minority of men. I hope that when the Bill frees them to move into the 21st century in this respect, they will make full use of the opportunities that it provides.

Peter Bottomley: I welcome the way in which the hon. Gentleman and the Government have approached exceptions; give or take the question I asked, they sound about right. I do not expect a full response to my next question, but it might be worth the Minister checking how far the word ''association''—whether corporate or not corporate—overlaps with both charitable and religious bodies. I am concerned that we should be fair and allow opportunities for natural development for such things as an Islamic social and welfare society, for example, which overlaps with religious and cultural organisations and that may have some parts that could properly be regarded as an association for purposes other than religion or charity, as those are commonly seen.

Where a religion treats men and women differently, we must, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, tread with some sensitivity. For all that there might be natural developments whereby women are able to take a fuller part, it is only recently that they have been able to take a full part—or nearly a full part—in the Church of England, which is the Christian denomination of which I am a member. I hope that the Muslim Council of Britain, and others, have had the opportunity to consider whether further adjustments to exemptions might be worth considering. At the moment, it is better to err with generosity on the exemption issue in areas of doubt and to try to make progress slowly in those sorts of areas. Most of the exemptions are perfectly justified and reasonable and would be accepted without difficulty by those who are included in the provisions for exemption and by those who are not. I leave the hon. Gentleman with the thought that it is worth checking with any of the main religions of the world—let alone those of this country—whether they see any problems that have not been considered.

Column Number: 13

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Gale, and I also welcome the sterling efforts of my hon. Friend—and near neighbour—the Member for Telford (David Wright) in promoting the Bill.

I wanted to raise two issues. I can raise the first only in relation to the exceptions clause. I seek clarification from my hon. Friend or from my right hon. Friend the Minister that the measure would apply to the whole of the United Kingdom. I do not know whether the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 does, because so many Acts apply differently in different parts of the country.

Secondly, I want to echo some of the comments that were made by the hon. Member for Worthing, West about religion. I wonder whether the provision might be reviewed on Report? In subsection (5), new subsection (6), would ''religious denomination'' be more felicitous wording? In his remarks on the clause my hon. Friend mentioned the Catholic club. As I understand it, Catholicism is not a religion, but a denomination of Christianity, albeit a large one.

Peter Bottomley: No.

Rob Marris: I stand to be corrected by a communicant of Church of England. Christianity is the religion and there are denominations of it, just as there might arguably be of Islam—Sunni and Shi'a. I urge my hon. Friend to examine that matter, because of the sensitivities that were referred to by the hon. Member for Worthing, West.

David Wright: I appreciate those constructive remarks. I will take on board the comments made by the hon. Member for Worthing, West and my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) about the religious groupings issues. They are important.

I will return to that point in relation to a later clause, but there is an opportunity for the introduction of the Bill to be phased. Before it goes forward, we must ensure that its parameters are right. There is an opportunity for organisations and groups to have further discussions about when the Secretary of State will implement the Bill in relation to them. It is important to record that.

Peter Bottomley: May I make one other suggestion? I do not expect the hon. Gentleman to accept or reject it straightaway. Is it worth while at a later stage considering a provision for adjustments to be made to exemptions by secondary legislation? Some exemptions may need to be tightened up in time when there are transitions and some might need to be loosened if someone discovers that the Bill is acting in an unintended way. If there is no such provision, it may be worth considering one at a later stage of the Bill's passage through Parliament.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2004
Prepared 14 June 2004