Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Bellingham : Increasing the commission's remit and bringing in the additional four strands will lead to an initial increase in costs, but the new quango will need only one information technology department, one human resources department and one new public relations department. Surely that is where the savings could be made. Far from making savings, however, the commission's budget will almost double.

Mrs. Laing: Yes, I would have thought that savings could be made in those areas, and that they could be offset against the increases that will be necessary to bring in the other three strands.

John Bercow : My hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) raised a perfectly fair point about the need for the commission to establish credibility. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) agree that, in its dealings with individuals and organisations, the commission should be guided by a very simple principle, namely that it should be the friend of the willing but uninitiated, and the foe of the wilfully non-compliant and incorrigibly discriminatory?

Mrs. Laing: Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. His poetic way of expressing his view is excellent, and I hope that he will forgive me if I steal his words to use in future discussions—[Interruption.] The Minister seems to suggest that she might do the same.

Harry Cohen : Notwithstanding the hon. Lady's point about costs, is not there a strong case not only for a London committee, but for the commission's national base to be in London? If we do not want a situation in London similar to the one that we have seen recently in Paris, the commission will surely need to be on hand and active in London, and able to lobby Ministers here.

Mrs. Laing: I understand why the hon. Gentleman is standing up for London, and I am sure that that matter will be discussed at a later stage. If I were the Minister, I might be able to give him an answer on that point, but sadly I am not.

The Government will have to go a lot further to justify the proposed increases in the cost of the new body. This is all taxpayers' money, and it is the Government's duty, when spending it, to consider that, if that pot of money were not spent on the administration of the new commission, it could be spent on education and training, for example, which would give more opportunities to all kinds of people in all parts of the country. I am sure that we shall return to the issue of
21 Nov 2005 : Column 1253
costs in our further consideration of the Bill, and I hope that the Minister and her colleagues in the Treasury will give the matter serious consideration.

The rules and regulations imposed by the Bill must not put too many burdens on business, especially on small businesses that do not have human resources departments to deal with them. I cannot emphasise this point too strongly. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire rightly said, it is important that the new body—and all that it stands for—commands respect. If the new provisions are seen to be disproportionately bureaucratic and overbearing, all that will happen is that employers will find an excuse not to employ women, disabled people, people from ethnic minorities or gay people in the first place. Reasonable employers who have an unreasonable fear of expensive litigation will find a way round it. They will not risk having a case brought against them, so the Bill's good intentions will backfire. I do not want that to happen, so the balance must be kept reasonable.

Thirdly, the new provisions must not be seen to interfere in people's lives where such interference is unnecessary. I am pleased that my noble Friends have succeeded in removing the clause relating to harassment on grounds of religion or belief. We all want to see an end to such harassment. No one wants to see harassment on any grounds whatsoever, but the end that the Government rightly sought to achieve will not be achieved by enacting overbearing legislation that would have had unintended consequences.

In all that we do in considering the Bill, it is vital that we preserve the distinctiveness of traditional groups, organisations and institutions of any religion or belief from any part of the country, representing any sector of our society. That distinctiveness is absolutely essential. There was a danger that that might have been lost under the Bill as originally drafted. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire said a few moments ago, displaying a subtle and peaceful symbol of a religion, be it a necklace with a cross or a seven-branch candlestick at the back of a room, or playing traditional Indian music at a gathering, must not be allowed to be interpreted as causing offence to someone of another religion. That is going too far and would make the legislation backfire. So I am pleased to hear from the Minister that the Government do not intend to reintroduce the relevant clause to the Bill, but I am also pleased that the matter will be considered at greater length under the review, because it is a complex matter that deserves deeper consideration.

Mr. Swayne : My hon. Friend is right about the complexity and the need for greater reflection, but she will notice that in relation to part 3 the harassment provisions remain within the Bill, and it is within the Minister's power to make regulations. Surely that is not acceptable.

Mrs. Laing: My hon. Friend makes a good point. In principle, it is acceptable to try to enact legislation to stop harassment, but I intend to look at the matter in great detail in Committee, because we must be careful that the provisions relating to preventing harassment do not have unintended consequences.

Will the Minister now give me an assurance that the Government will, in their further deliberations, protect the distinctive ethos of groups, organisations and
21 Nov 2005 : Column 1254
institutions throughout the country? Perhaps when the Minister replies she will give that serious consideration. Every group, society or institution should be allowed to have their distinctive ethos, and we do not want, in the name of equality, to destroy distinctiveness.

Sir Patrick Cormack: Like the Minister, my hon. Friend has been extremely generous in giving way. Is she aware that reputable bodies such as the Christian Institute feel that, if we are not careful—I choose my words carefully—some of the Bill's proposals could create a situation where one has freedom from religion rather than freedom of religion and for religion?

Mrs. Laing: My hon. Friend makes another good point. I mentioned the Christian Institute and its consideration of the Bill at the beginning of my speech. Many of the unintended consequences were dealt with very well by Conservatives and others in the other place. I am sure the Minister will be pleased to hear that we will deal with the issue in more detail in Committee, when I shall bear in mind what my hon. Friend said.

I mentioned the excellent work done in the other place. I am also very pleased that the Government have accepted the amendments relating to discrimination in the provision of goods and services on grounds of sexual orientation. It is only logical to give those who might be discriminated against on such grounds the same rights as other groups, and I commend Stonewall for its reasonable arguments in that regard.

Bob Spink : Does my hon. Friend accept that there should be exceptions for religious groups?

Mrs. Laing: Of course there should always be exceptions. Laws without exceptions are not good laws.

Mr. Swayne : Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. Laing: In the interests of fairness and equality, I will.

Mr. Swayne: When we consider exceptions, what is important is scrutiny of the parliamentary process. However, one clause in part 3 effectively hands over the entire legislative process to a Minister, in the form of regulation-making powers, thus denying the House the opportunity properly to scrutinise a very sensitive and technical issue.

Mrs. Laing: We shall have to look at every word of the regulations if and when the Government attempt to introduce them. We shall have to be very wary. I certainly intend to be.

My fourth point is that the Bill must not be seen a merely another vehicle for political correctness. People are fed up with political correctness. I do not want my hon. Friends the Members for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) and for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), or my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and
21 Nov 2005 : Column 1255
Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), to feel persecuted. Political correctness gets a bad name, and law made in the name of political correctness alone is bad law.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): Can the hon. Lady give a definition of political correctness?

Next Section IndexHome Page