The Bill is no doubt very well intentioned. I certainly wish to sign up to the aspirations of clause 3 in the respect for human rights, dignity and worth of individuals and equal opportunities and mutual respect that it seeks to uphold and promote. I am pleased that the Government have said that they do not intend to put the original religious harassment provisions back into the Bill.
I pay tribute to the work of those in the other place, particularly Baroness O'Cathain, whose efforts exposed the loose drafting of the original Bill, which could have been used to try to outlaw all kinds of expressions of legitimate religious faith.
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Other issues of religious liberty are at stake in the Bill and need to be considered. I wish particularly to deal with the detail of its implementation. Part 3 is entitled, "Discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation". One would certainly wish to sign up to the general principle of wanting to avoid discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. However, I am concerned that proper protections should be in place as regards the implementation of that part of the Bill. The amendments that the Government accepted in the other place at least countenanced the possibility of religious protections. Clause 80(3)(e) provides for the possibility of regulations under part 2 but does not require them. I respectfully suggest that that requires careful consideration, and indeed amendment, in Committee.
Without clauses 56 to 59, the religious discrimination provisions of the Bill would outlaw many ordinary legitimate activities of religious groups. In the same way, without specific religious protections the provisions on sexual orientation discrimination could have the same effect. I am concerned that those groups should be free to uphold their doctrinal beliefs and to retain the integrity of their religious ethos and their freedom of association.
Meg Hillier: I think that all Members of this House believe in religious freedom, but we also believe in fairness and equality. Why should the hon. Gentleman be treated differently from someone of a different orientation from himself, or any of us, for that matter? There is no reason in religion to treat people differently.
Mr. Burrowes: I do not seek to distinguish between people's beliefs, nor between the views of the hon. Lady and another hon. Member. Nevertheless, it is a fact that many churches will not allow into membership a person who, for example, is sexually active outside marriage.
Without proper protections, any new laws on sexual orientation could lead to a church being taken to court for refusing membership and associated activities to, for example, a practising homosexual. Some hon. Members may well feel that that is unacceptable and have no sympathy at all with such churches, but it is a fact that many would adopt that practice. They should not have a view imposed on them that would compromise their beliefs. They do many good things in our communities. They are heavily involved in voluntary activities, providing help and support to many of those who are excluded by statutory agencies. They assist many of the most vulnerable people. They help all within our communities regardless of religion, sexual morality or anything else. There is one such centre in my constituencythe Trinity-at-Bowes centre in the Bowes area. It has opened its doors to all people of different religions and cultures, regardless of views but providing help for the most vulnerable.
We need to be careful to allow those churches to carry on their legitimate activities and practices and to give them the proper protections. Many of them do more to fulfil the principles of clause 3mutual respect to others, providing equal opportunity, dignity and worth to each individualthan any commission will ever do. Hon. Members may talk about diversity, but why must those groups face sanction for their non-conformity with a certain view of sexual morality? When they
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choose their own members, we should protect their freedom of association and not allow them to be at risk of legal action from undue complaints.
Mr. Burrowes: No, I am not. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for allowing me to clarify the point. The ethos and religious belief of some churches may be involved with morality or a view on sexual orientation, with the practical effect that in terms of membership and associated activities they take a view on sexual activity outside marriage and homosexuality. However one defines that, it is the reality for some religious groups.
I respectfully ask for that point to be considered, because several churches will worry that there will be a proscription of their activities and practice that could properly be dealt with in a sensitive and appropriate way similar to that in part 2, which gives appropriate protections.
Meg Hillier: I spoke recently to a middle-aged lesbian couple in my constituency. One of them said to a roomful of people, "I'm a good woman. I just want a simple life. People care too much about sex. What does it matter what I do in the privacy of my bedroom." What would the hon. Gentleman say to her?
Mr. Burrowes: With respect, that is not greatly relevant to the Bill. The issue is not what one individual thinks of another but the activities of some churches, which are defined by a statement of faith and their ethos. They legitimately carry out their activities and determine membership on the basis of their statement of faith and ethos. They are concerned that, without proper protections, the Bill could proscribe their activities.
Let me move on to a separate point that my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) helpfully raisedBaroness O'Cathain raised it in another placeabout the commission's power to back a legal action brought by an individual, and the use of its powers in judicial review, investigation and enforcement. It is important that we have a proper approach and that we recognise that legal action over, for example, religious liberty may mean that, on one side, we have the substantial financial and legal resources of the commission and, on the other, a defendant with limited resources who may be disadvantaged. There could be proceedings against a church or religious charity that would be left struggling to find the money to pay for lawyers. That inequality of resources could result in a miscarriage of justice.
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In the other place, the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs responded by effectively saying that bad cases could never succeed. She shows a great deal of faith in the systemI suppose that she would, given that she is an Under-Secretary in the Department for Constitutional Affairsbut perhaps, after 11 years as a solicitor, I can be more sceptical about the system and its practical effects. Without proper resources and proper advice, many a litigant's claim would be less likely to succeed.
The commission's intervention in an individual legal action could turn it into a David-and-Goliath battle. Ironically, the human rights legislation needs to be carefully examined to ascertain whether the equality-of-arms principle is fulfilled in the instance that we are considering. I hope that the Government will reconsider, especially about some form of assistance for those on the receiving end of legal actions that the commission back. Perhaps assistance should be strictly limited to non-profit-making organisations or, indeed, means-tested.
The Under-Secretary in the other place sought to allay fears about proper assistance for representation by relying on the Access to Justice Act 1999, which provides scope for assistance when public funding is not normally available. However, in practice, that is an exceptional route to follow. It is not often allowed by the Legal Services Commission. I respectfully suggest that the Government should consider explicit provision for legal assistance and funding for those who are on the receiving end of legal action by the commission.
John Bercow: It is a truism that a small organisation that is up against a large organisation will always, relatively speaking, be at a disadvantage, not least financially. However, we normally accept that organisations have to operate within the law as decreed by Parliament. Does not my hon. Friend accept that it would be perfectly proper for a small organisation of the sort that he describes to opt to purchase legal insurance against the eventuality that he envisages?