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Session 2004 - 05
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Standing Committee Debates
Equality Bill [Lords]

Equality Bill [Lords]

Column Number: 183

Standing Committee A

Tuesday 6 December 2005

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: †Mr. Roger Gale,

Janet Anderson

†Baird, Vera (Redcar) (Lab)

†Barlow, Ms Celia (Hove) (Lab)

†Blackman, Liz (Erewash) (Lab)

†Brokenshire, James (Hornchurch) (Con)

Brown, Lyn (West Ham) (Lab)

Campbell, Mr. Gregory (East Londonderry) (DUP)

†Dhanda, Mr. Parmjit (Gloucester) (Lab)

†Evennett, Mr. David (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con)

†Follett, Barbara (Stevenage) (Lab)

†Gidley, Sandra (Romsey) (LD)

†Goggins, Paul (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department)

†Grieve, Mr. Dominic (Beaconsfield) (Con)

†Harris, Dr. Evan (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD)

†James, Mrs. Siân C. (Swansea, East) (Lab)

†Laing, Mrs. Eleanor (Epping Forest) (Con)

†McCarthy-Fry, Sarah (Portsmouth, North) (Lab)

†Miller, Mrs. Maria (Basingstoke) (Con)

†Munn, Meg (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry)

†Seabeck, Alison (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab)

†Ussher, Kitty (Burnley) (Lab)

Williams, Hywel (Caernarfon) (PC)

Geoffrey Farrar, Emily Commander, Committee Clerks

†attended the Committee


[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

Equality Bill [Lords]

4 pm

The Chairman: Good afternoon. I see that the Committee made rapid progress this morning.

Clause 51

Public authorities: general

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): I beg to move amendment No. 120, in clause 51, page 32, line 30, leave out paragraph (f).

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 121, in clause 51, page 32, line 48, leave out paragraph (g).

Mr. Grieve: I welcome you back to the Chair, Mr. Gale. We have indeed made a lot of progress, and I am sure that we can make much more this afternoon.

The amendments deal with subsection (4)(f) and (g) on immigration rules and entry clearance. Although to stimulate debate I have proposed to leave out both paragraphs, I have different views about each. Paragraph (g) is utterly logical. We know that we have to admit people specifically to fulfil religious duties in Britain. That is an area of exception that has long existed. Judgments are bound to be made in respect of criteria pertaining to religion.

However, paragraph (f) is a little more vague, and I would be grateful if the Minister explained why it is thought necessary to make the prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of religion apply to the immigration rules. One can of course think of occasions when one might wish to exclude somebody on the basis of their religion, but that will be not because of the religion itself but because of their behaviour. I wonder whether it is necessary for paragraph (f) to be phrased in such stark terms. Rather, could it not be restricted further? I wait to hear from the Minister about the Government's reasoning on that.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): Again, we are grateful to the hon. Gentleman for tabling these amendments so that we can have focused discussion on this part of the Bill. The clause represents a narrowing of the original terms of the Bill. That was achieved, with or without the Government's agreement at first sight, in the House of Lords. In respect of paragraph (g), I would make the same comments as the hon. Gentleman has just made.

However, there is a problem with paragraph (f). In human rights terms, the Government might be able to cite in any event an objective justification for taking action to deny someone the right to be here. That may well engage issues to do with the enjoyment of their private life which is effectively indirectly due to their religion. However, that would be subject to an objective justification.
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In respect of the discrimination measures, the Government must have some form of exemption, in case the concern is about not only the behaviour, but the presence in the UK. The test is not about behaviour in respect of the public good. It is that the exclusion or refusal of entry clearance would be conducive to the public good.

It would be interesting to note to what extent the experiences of Reverend Moon required that sort of provision. I imagine that he was excluded not directly on the basis of his religion, but on the basis of something quite closely connected to it. Although the Government suffered a reversal in the courts, perhaps on a technicality, that example prompts questions about whether it would be fair for the Home Secretary to use such powers of exclusion and removal against people on the basis of religion, when, from that religion's point of view, that is done simply because its adherents are not understood or because its religious opponents—religions do have opponents—are besmirching them. Clearly, there is an appeal right, but it would be useful to hear from the Government how often it is anticipated this sort of exception would be engaged under the statute.

Both the relevant paragraphs include, in brackets, the words

    ''but this exception does not have effect in relation to harassment'',

and I am not sure whether those were deliberately left in, following the removal of harassment from the provisions, whether it is intended to tidy things up, or whether it is reasonable to keep the wording in any event. It might well be, but I should be grateful for clarification.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Paul Goggins): A warm welcome to you, Mr. Gale. Perhaps I should deal first with subsection (4)(g), because that seems to have struck a chord with the Committee and the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) described it as utterly logical. Of course, the immigration service makes special arrangements for the admission to the United Kingdom of people, such as ministers of religion with particular religious functions, to assist religious communities that need access to such people. We need to be able to admit those people without acting unlawfully. I am pleased at the response of hon. Members of all parties.

Subsection (4)(f) would allow the immigration service to take entry decisions on the ground of public good where a person's religion or beliefs might be a part of the ground for the decision. In each and every case the decision would be an individual one about a specific applicant. There are, clearly, people whose religious views are so extreme that we would not want them to visit the United Kingdom to propagate them. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) mentioned the Reverend Moon. His exclusion was on the ground of public order. However, there may be individuals who apply to come to this country and who hold a particular religious belief—for example, that children should renounce their parents—that we find wholly
Column Number: 187
unacceptable, and do not want people to propagate in our communities.

It is difficult to distinguish between holding that religious belief and giving effect to it. Clearly, in making a decision about an individual, the immigration service will want to take account of not just the person's religious belief but its potential impact on vulnerable young people. An exemption to allow the immigration service to act in that way seems fair. The threat that is posed may not be of the scale that we discussed in earlier deliberations, such as terrorism or other wider threats, but the protection of, particularly, the most vulnerable people in the community is important. The immigration service should have a mind to that when making decisions about individuals.

I hope that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield will accept that those are reasonable grounds on which to provide an exemption. If so, he may consider withdrawing his amendment.

Mr. Grieve: The Minister makes a persuasive case. I hope that he will excuse my saying that it highlights a slight oddity that underlies the measure. I suspect that I shall, at the end of the day, be comfortable with it, but I think that the Committee should bear that in mind. We consider it acceptable for the state to lay down criteria by which it can deny access to the country to individuals whose views it considers not conducive to the public good. However, under the Bill we would deny individuals in Britain the right not to provide goods and services to people about whom they might hold exactly the same view.

I can make a distinction between those two concepts, but we should do well to have the issue in mind in Committee, because that is the reality of what we are doing. There is an argument, which was raised in another place, that we may be going too far—I now come back to my views about beliefs, which I raised with the Minister earlier—in extending the mantle of acceptability to other people's views, and that in doing so we may put an unwarranted burden on individuals. I have a residual anxiety about that.

There is, however, logic in the Minister's position as to why he wants to refuse entry to the relevant people. Of course, that is open to challenge in the courts, and I dare say that it will be challenged. One of the probable grounds on which it will be challenged is the European convention on human rights freedom to practise a religion.

I have no doubt that this area of the legislation is likely to be tested. I can well imagine that some individuals who are kept out—for good reasons, in my view—will say, ''The only basis on which you are keeping me out is my religious views, and that is discriminatory.'' It will then be for the Government's lawyers to argue that they are entitled to do so. In such circumstances, they may fall back on the argument that public order issues relating to such people warrant their exclusion. That is why I initially touched on whether we should focus on the public order element.

I genuinely hope that subsection (4)(f) stands the test of being challenged in the courts. In view of what the Government are setting up in the rest of the Bill, I
Column Number: 188
suspect that it will come to be challenged, but that is not to say that I think that the Government are wrong.

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Prepared 6 December 2005