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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mrs. Janet Dean
Betts, Mr. Clive (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab)
Blackman, Liz (Erewash) (Lab)
Boswell, Mr. Tim (Daventry) (Con)
Bryant, Chris (Rhondda) (Lab)
Burrowes, Mr. David (Enfield, Southgate) (Con)
Burt, Lorely (Solihull) (LD)
Corbyn, Jeremy (Islington, North) (Lab)
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey) (Lab)
Fabricant, Michael (Lichfield) (Con)
Follett, Barbara (Stevenage) (Lab)
Harris, Dr. Evan (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD)
Laing, Mrs. Eleanor (Epping Forest) (Con)
Munn, Meg (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government)
Norris, Dan (Wansdyke) (Lab)
Palmer, Dr. Nick (Broxtowe) (Lab)
Skinner, Mr. Dennis (Bolsover) (Lab)
Wright, Jeremy (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con)
David Doig, Mark Oxborough, Committee Clerk s
† attended the Committee
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(2):
Bercow, John (Buckingham) (Con)
Binley, Mr. Brian (Northampton, South) (Con)
Bone, Mr. Peter (Wellingborough) (Con)
Brazier, Mr. Julian (Canterbury) (Con)
Burt, Alistair (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con)
Cash, Mr. William (Stone) (Con)
Chope, Mr. Christopher (Christchurch) (Con)
Davies, Mr. David T.C. (Monmouth) (Con)
Duncan Smith, Mr. Iain (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con)
Grieve, Mr. Dominic (Beaconsfield) (Con)
Hayes, Mr. John (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con)
Hollobone, Mr. Philip (Kettering) (Con)
Howarth, Mr. Gerald (Aldershot) (Con)
Jenkin, Mr. Bernard (North Essex) (Con)
Leigh, Mr. Edward (Gainsborough) (Con)
Paterson, Mr. Owen (North Shropshire) (Con)
Pelling, Mr. Andrew (Croydon, Central) (Con)
Randall, Mr. John (Uxbridge) (Con)
Redwood, Mr. John (Wokingham) (Con)
Scott, Mr. Lee (Ilford, North) (Con)
Selous, Andrew (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con)
Smith, Sir Robert (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD)
Swayne, Mr. Desmond (New Forest, West) (Con)
Watkinson, Angela (Upminster) (Con)
Winterton, Sir Nicholas (Macclesfield) (Con)

Twelfth Delegated Legislation Committee

Thursday 15 March 2007

[Mrs. Janet Dean in the Chair]

Draft Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007

8.55 am
Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): On a point of order, Mrs. Dean. May I be the first to welcome you to the Chair? I do not know whether you are Chairman by choice or by sufferance, or when you were notified that you would be in the Chair, but I was formally notified that I had to attend at 5.49 pm yesterday. That puts my point of order in context.
To put it in wider context, the Secretary of State said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham that there was a need for proper debate on this important issue. That is reflected by the attendance of many hon. Members this morning. I seek your guidance, Mrs. Dean, on moving a dilatory motion for the adjournment of the Committee, given the unusual processes that have led to our being hastily convened to meet today, at this hour, to debate the regulations. As I understand it, the regulations have changed three times since publication last Wednesday and have been unavailable for periods of time—not least, they have not been online and available to the public and to hon. Members and my hon. Friends.
We are dealing with an issue that causes much concern on all sides, which has to be dealt with carefully and properly. In the words of the Secretary of State, we should deal with it
“openly and honestly with each other.”—[Official Report, 19 October 2006; Vol. 450, c. 1015.]
There is a concern. There is a sensitivity about dealing with such a matter by way of delegated legislation. We should be dealing with it with care, due diligence and proper process. The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has had little time to consider and report on the regulations. I seek your advice, Mrs. Dean, on whether now is the time to move such a dilatory motion.
The Chairman: In order to move a dilatory motion, the hon. Member has to be called by me to speak; at that point, I would make a decision. At the moment, it is purely hypothetical and I cannot make a decision at this time.
Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): On a point of order, Mrs. Dean. My point of order is perhaps more of a practical matter. This Committee was summoned less than 17 hours ago, and yet close to 60 or 70 Members are in the room. Officials are sitting on the floor. This is a completely inappropriate room for a debate of this magnitude. Given the circumstances, I suggest that we adjourn now and reconvene at a later stage in a much more appropriate room.
The Chairman: The choice of room is not a matter for the Chair. As hon. Members will see, there are spare seats on the Government side of the room. I remind hon. Members that any time taken up by points of order will be taken out of the amount of time that we have for debate.
Several hon. Members rose
The Chairman: Order. I am still on my feet. Since many hon. Members want to get in on the debate, I suggest that we limit points of order.
Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): On a point of order, Mrs. Dean. Have you had the opportunity to take advice on whether the regulations are ultra vires on the grounds that they do not comply with the framework of the law? There are strong grounds for believing that they are ultra vires, including, surprisingly, the European Communities Act 1972.
The Chairman: I can say that the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments met yesterday and gave the regulations a clean bill of health.
Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mrs. Dean. Is that correct? One of the issues raised by the Committee was whether the regulations covered the school curriculum. My understanding is—although I stand to be corrected—that counsel advising the Joint Committee has a completely different view from that of the Government about whether the school curriculum is covered. That also, indeed, affects devolved institutions in Scotland, and the question of any impact on the devolution settlement, because the curriculum in Scotland is the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament. I flag that up because an issue seems to have arisen.
The Chairman: May I point out that we have not begun the debate yet. Although the Joint Committee has not made any recommendation to the House on the regulations, the issue mentioned by the hon. Gentleman could be raised during the debate.
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): On a point of order, Mrs. Dean. Given the enormous public interest in the matter and the short notice that we have all had of the Committee’s sitting, am I right in thinking, following Mr. Speaker’s response to a point of order yesterday, and representations made by hon. Members to the Public Bill Office, that you have the power to adjourn the Committee? The obvious solution is to debate the order on the Floor of the House. That is what the country wants and demands, so that we can have a proper debate in which all sides of the issue can be heard.
The Chairman: My power is to accept or not to accept a dilatory motion, and it is then up to the Committee to decide on that.
The Chairman: I remind hon. Members that by making points of order they are taking time from what is allowed for the debate. I have answered the point about my powers. The timing of the Committee is not solely a matter for the Chair. As usual, the time was proposed by the Government and I was able to agree to chair it at this time.
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mrs. Dean. We have not had time to get the papers; we had very little notice of where the sitting was to be held, and we find that the Room is far too small. I must join my hon. Friends in saying that there is huge interest in the issue among Christian communities, and that huge numbers of those who want a more open and tolerant society are interested. Very powerful issues are involved which need to be debated in full on the Floor of the House so, with my hon. Friends, I urge you to adjourn the Committee and ask for the order to be taken on the Floor of the House.
The Chairman: I have already answered that point.
Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con): On a point of order, Mrs. Dean. Mr. Speaker made it clear yesterday, including in private discussions, that if an hon. Member made representations to the Public Bill Office and, at the same time, a point of order was raised here, it would be within your power to postpone the Committee at least until further consideration had been given. The grounds for that are twofold. First, Mr. Speaker understood that, given the nature of the debate, the notice of the sitting was very short, particularly in the light of what the House was debating yesterday and the degree to which most hon. Members would have been involved in that; secondly, as I discovered yesterday evening, more than one member of the Labour party was given an assurance by the Secretary of State that the matters would be brought to the Floor of the House. That guarantee has now been breached. I put it to you Mrs. Dean that you have the power to postpone the Committee—to suspend it and to take consideration of where and when the matters should be deliberated on, with reference to Mr. Speaker.
The Chairman: On the last point, it is not in my power to do what the hon. Gentleman suggests. Now that we have started the proceedings the only way of adjourning them is through a dilatory motion.
Therefore, the onus is on you, Mrs. Dean. This is an opportunity for you to cover yourself with glory by asserting the power of the Chair in order to ensure that the traditions of the House are upheld, and that we have not only freedom of conscience on the streets but freedom of expression here in the House of Commons.
The Chairman: I have been using the power of the Chair to allow as many points of order as I have. The subject that was just raised is a matter for debate. I am prepared to accept further points of order, but only if they raise new matters.
David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): On a point of order, Mrs. Dean. Is it not the case that you have the power to reconvene this Committee at another time? Do you not think that it would be a good thing to do, given that so many hon. Members feel very strongly about the issue and wish to have the chance to comment on it, but are unable to do so because they are sitting on other Committees? As far as the public are concerned, it will look as if we have been well and truly—to use the vernacular—tucked up, so that open debate cannot take place on a matter about which people feel very strongly.
The Chairman: That is not a new point of order. I have already said—
Mr. Leigh: It is a different point of order.
The Chairman: Order. I am still on my feet. Since we have started the proceedings, as I have said before, they can be adjourned only by a dilatory motion.
Mr. Leigh: On a point of order, Mrs. Dean. You have made your decision, which, of course, must be accepted. However, for the record, it should be noted that, because all Front-Bench spokesmen will, naturally, speak first, and all three parties support the motion, it is possible that in this hour-and-a-half sitting, there will be not a single speech against the motion. That is an outrage as far as democracy is concerned.
The Chairman: The sooner we get into the debate, the more chance there is of people who are not members of the Committee taking part. I urge hon. Members, including the Minister, to keep their speeches short, and I shall endeavour to take as many speakers—first, members of the Committee, and afterwards, non-members—as possible. With that, I call the Minister to move the motion.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Meg Munn): rose—
Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): On a point of order, Mrs. Dean. I am a new Member and I seek your advice and guidance. I came to this place from local government, so I know how keen the Government were on the concept of proper scrutiny in local government. However, the truth is that the body scrutinising this matter ceased its work only yesterday, and the body of its work has not been published, so how can we possibly carry on the work of the House properly when we do not have that report and we are not able to scrutinise the matter properly?
The Chairman: Again, that is a point about the Committee’s timing, to which I have already responded.
9.8 am
Meg Munn : I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007.
The regulations fulfil the Government’s commitment to bring forward protections against sexual orientation discrimination alongside similar protections for religion or belief, which are set out in part 2 of the Equality Act 2006. During the passage of the Act, the Government accepted amendments to provide order-making powers for such protections in order to allow for public consultation and a proper assessment of the impact of the measures. I have found this morning’s interventions quite extraordinary, because the decision to debate the regulations in Committee was agreed between all three parties, including the official Opposition and the Government. Therefore, I suggest that hon. Members from the official Opposition need to debate the matter within their own party, and not in this Committee.
Mr. Grieve: Will the Minister give way?
Meg Munn: I shall not.
Northern Ireland, which has its own equality framework, made its regulations under a separate order-making power. The regulations came into force on 1 January, and motions to annul them were roundly defeated in a Delegated Legislation Committee and in the other place.
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): Will the Minister give way?
Meg Munn: I shall not. I am taking seriously the Chair’s request to make some progress so that hon. Members will have an opportunity to speak.
Mr. Burrowes: On a point of order, Mrs. Dean. Further to your advice about the moving of the motion and its timing, I seek to move a dilatory motion.
The Chairman: Perhaps I did not make myself clear. A Member, who must be a member of the Committee—
Mr. Bone: My hon. Friend is a member of the Committee.
The Chairman: I have not finished. An hon. Member can move a dilatory motion only when speaking to the main motion.
Meg Munn: The regulations broadly follow the approach set out in the Northern Ireland regulations—
Mr. Redwood: Will the Minister give way?
Meg Munn: I shall not. The regulations follow that approach, allowing for some differences in line with the different legal and social contexts—[Interruption.] I understood that hon. Members wanted to debate this issue. If I am not even permitted to get through a few paragraphs of notes in order to set out the issues, I fail to see how we can have a proper debate.
Our consultation on these issues has been extensive; almost 3,000 responses to the formal public consultation exercise were received—[Interruption.] I am finding it difficult to understand hon. Members’ concerns, given that many hon. Members appear to be talking and not listening.
Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): Will the Minister give way?
Meg Munn: I shall not.
The Government recognised the potential for rights to clash in this area, and we have taken additional time to consider the strong and sincere opinions held on all sides of this complex issue.
Mr. Cash: Will the Minister give way on that point?
Meg Munn: I shall not.
Mr. Howarth: On a point of order, Mrs. Dean. You have made it perfectly clear that we must proceed to discuss this matter. If there is to be any genuine debate on this issue, this is the only forum in which it can take place. If the Minister is not going to give way, no debate will take place and there will simply be a monologue from the Minister. That would be an outrage.
The Chairman: It is a matter for the Minister to decide whether or not she gives way.
Meg Munn: This is extraordinary, is it not, Mrs. Dean? I am trying to set out the Government position, but before I have even done so, hon. Members are seeking to intervene—[Interruption.]
The Chairman: Order.
Meg Munn: I shall happily take interventions when I have had an opportunity to set out at least some of the proposals and the reasons for them. I think that hon. Members will find that I am reasonable, although I do not find their current behaviour reasonable.
Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Con): It is the Government who are being unreasonable.
Meg Munn: I shall commence my paragraph again, so that we can have some continuity and people can understand what I was saying.
Our consultation on these issues has been extensive, with almost 3,000 responses to the formal public consultation exercise received. The Government recognised the potential for rights to clash in this area and we have taken additional time to consider the different strong and sincere opinions on this complex issue. These proposals have been subject to extensive scrutiny, both as part of the consultation process and within Parliament. Included in that is the recent Westminster Hall debate on the future of the voluntary adoption agency sector. The Government have taken serious account of all views.
Mr. Grieve: Will the Minister give way?
Meg Munn: Will the hon. Gentleman please allow me to make a little more progress?
The case for new protections on grounds of sexual orientation was made during the passage of the Equality Act 2006, and the process by which the regulations would be brought into force was agreed. As a result of the strong response to the consultation, we postponed the introduction of the regulations, but committed to bringing them into force this April, alongside similar provisions on grounds of religion or belief.
The sensitivity of the issues raised by this legislation and the need to weigh up all of the arguments made in response to the Government’s consultation carefully meant that 7 March was the earliest possible date for the introduction of the regulations. Prompt consideration of the regulations by both Houses will now provide those organisations that have expressed concern with greater certainty and preparation time in advance of the regulations coming into force.
As I have said, the regulations follow broadly the same approach as the Northern Ireland regulations, which came into force on 1 January. Therefore, the content of these regulations will be well known to hon. Members. There are some differences, and I will come to those.
Mr. Jenkin: Will the Minister give way?
Meg Munn: I wish to make slightly more progress and then I shall happily give way.
The regulations broadly follow that similar approach, and motions to annul them were soundly defeated in both Houses. The Joint Committee on Human Rights has endorsed the approach set out in the Great Britain regulations and the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has given the regulations the all-clear.
The Government have an excellent record in legislating to improve the rights of lesbian, gay and bisexual people while respecting people from all faiths and those of none. Since 1997 the Government have equalised the age of consent, repealed section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, enabled same-sex couples to apply to adopt jointly, prohibited sexual-orientation discrimination in the workplace and introduced the Civil Partnership Act 2004. In parallel, we have brought forward new laws tackling religious hatred and employment discrimination on grounds of religion or belief. Later this year we will provide protection from discrimination on grounds of gender reassignment when we implement the EU gender directive on goods and services.
The consultation has provided evidence of the need to extend protection beyond the workplace. Lesbians, gay men and bisexual people continue to face prejudice and discrimination when seeking to access goods, facilities and services, including basic protection that the rest of us take for granted. It is beyond belief that same-sex couples can still be asked to leave a restaurant for holding hands, that some schools continue to turn a blind eye to homophobic bullying or that young homeless people can be asked to leave sheltered accommodation on revealing that they are gay or lesbian.
Mr. Leigh: We all agree with the Minister that discrimination is wrong, but would she accept the statement of Archbishop Vincent Nichols? He said that
“those who are elected to fashion our laws are not elected to be our moral tutors. They have no mandate or competence to be so.”
Everybody is opposed to discrimination, but surely everybody is also opposed to the state imposing its own moral code on a religious organisation. Nobody is forced to go to a Catholic adoption agency. Therefore, what is the current nature of negotiations with the Catholic Church? I hope that there is there some compromise that the Minister can offer to the dedicated people who run those agencies, dealing with the most difficult cases, so that they can carry on their work and yet remain true to their deepest religious beliefs?
Meg Munn: If the hon. Gentleman bears with me, I shall deal with Catholic adoption agencies later.
Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): Will the Minister give way?
Mr. Pelling: Will the Minister give way?
Meg Munn: If hon. Gentlemen bear with me, I will make a little more progress, because I will be covering the issues that they probably seek to raise.
Mr. Jenkin: Will the Minister give way? There are some points that I wish to address now.
Meg Munn: I shall give way then.
Mr. Jenkin: The Minister mentioned that the Government were anxious to deal with the matter “promptly”—I think she used that word, or the phrase “prompt deliberation”. Does she not understand that the Government urging of “prompt deliberation” means not giving proper deliberation, nor allowing Parliament to have proper deliberation? Why did the Government publish the amended regulations only on Friday, bringing the issue forward with such untimely speed? That is causing a great deal of offence and not raising the reputation of the House as a body that gives proper consideration, in a proper manner, to controversial pieces of legislation. Does the Minister think that she has done the House a good service?
Meg Munn: The hon. Gentleman was searching for the words I used; they were “prompt consideration”. The issues have been aired over a number of months. The consultation document was sent out, and there have been many responses. There have been many opportunities in the House to ask questions, as indeed hon. Members have done. There have been the Northern Ireland regulations, which, as I said, these regulations broadly follow—I will be coming to the differences and the reasons for those shortly—so there are no surprises. The decision to have the debate in Committee was taken between all parties.
Mr. Grieve: Will the Minister give way?
Meg Munn: Not until I have finished responding to the previous point. I am asking for a little basic politeness, which is not too much to request.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): On a point of order, Mrs. Dean. I am sorry to raise this, not least because I respect the Minister’s wish to explain the situation, but she has shown a disinclination to give way to the shadow Attorney-General. As a non-lawyer, it seems to me that the whole nature of the discussion is whether or not the Government’s procedure is reasonable. Would it be reasonable for the Committee to adjourn in order to invite the Attorney-General to attend and to advise as to whether the proceedings of the Committee are compliant with the proper procedures?
The Chairman: That is not a matter for me.
Mr. Grieve: On a point of order, Mrs. Dean. The Minister is in danger of forgetting that she has had representations from the official Opposition that this matter is not suitable to be dealt with by means of statutory instruments, and that it should be dealt with instead as primary legislation. We offered to facilitate that task and to help the Government deal with it in a smooth and sensible fashion. As she has repeated for the second time that everybody is happy with the procedure, it has to be placed on the record that she knows that the reason why we said that the matter had to be dealt with in primary legislation was that the regulations contain complex legal issues and create inconsistency and difficulty, even to those who wish to see an outcome that removes discrimination.
The Chairman: That is not a matter for the Chairman; it is a matter of debate.
Meg Munn: I repeat that it seems only sensible that if hon. Members intervene on me, I should have the opportunity to complete my response to them. I have lost track of what I was saying, so I will continue my speech. I repeat that these matters have been agreed between Members on the Front Benches; if Opposition hon. Members do not like that, they should take it up with those on their Front Bench.
The regulations will tackle real, everyday problems. The principle of legislating in this area was supported by the overwhelming majority of responses to consultation. There was a divided opinion on how to safeguard freedom of conscience and expression, however. We believe that we have reached the right balance, which follows the approach in Northern Ireland. It has been welcomed by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. The Government respect people’s right to their core religious beliefs, and maintain that an exemption for religious or belief organisations is necessary to protect practices—[Interruption.]
Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): On a point of order, Mrs. Dean. We have a big Committee whose members are meant to be listening. They are meant to be interested in this important subject, yet they are all talking among themselves. I have never known a group of Conservative MPs who have been so rude.
Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): You should come to one of our dinners.
The Chairman: That point of order is a matter for the Chair. I was about to say that hon. Members should listen to what is being said rather than talk among themselves.
Meg Munn: Thank you, Mrs. Dean. Perhaps I will take up the hon. Gentleman’s offer.
Where religious organisations enter into an agreement to provide social or welfare services to the wider community on behalf of, and under contract to, a public authority, the rights of lesbians, gays and bisexuals to have equal access to those services must come first. In many respects, the regulations follow the approach taken in the Northern Ireland regulations, to ensure consistency throughout the United Kingdom.
Mr. Brazier: The Minister will remember that when we served together on the long, worthwhile process of the Children and Adoption Act 2006, at every stage it was not the rights of the parents that were put first, but the rights of the children. Given that the regulations will mean that by far the most effective adoption agency in the country, which takes the most difficult mix of the most damaged children and still has the lowest failure rate, will have to close because it cannot operate within conscience within the regulations, do the regulations really put the children first?
Meg Munn: If hon. Members can contain themselves, I will get to the issue of adoption and fostering agencies. I know that it is an interest of both the hon. Gentleman’s and mine. I do not believe that any adoption agency will have to close unless it wants to continue to discriminate.
In many respects, the regulations follow the approach taken in the Northern Ireland regulations, to ensure consistency throughout the United Kingdom.
Mr. Bone: Will the Minister give way?
Meg Munn: No, I should like to make some progress. In a number of areas, we have taken a different approach from that in Northern Ireland to reflect the different equality framework and policy—
Mr. Bone: On a point of order, Mrs. Dean. I do not want the Minister inadvertently to mislead the Committee. The Northern Ireland regulations, which I know are different, were reported after they came into practice as being defective in seven areas by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. To imply that they had a clean bill of health would inadvertently mislead.
The Chairman: Again, that is a matter for debate.
Meg Munn: Thank you, Mrs. Dean.
We have, however, taken a different approach in several areas to reflect the different equality framework and policy considerations in Great Britain, and I shall briefly explain the differences. First, we have made it clear in the regulations that a civil partner may bring a discrimination claim on the grounds of sexual orientation against a provider of goods or services who denies them access to a benefit or service that was being offered to a married person in a similar situation. That is in line with the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003.
Mr. Cash: As the Minister knows, the Equality Act 2006 is based on the European directive. In the context of human rights legislation, there is the issue of freedom of conscience on the one hand and the importance of maintaining family life on the other. On what basis do the Government take the view that a ruling should be made through the regulations in favour of anti-discrimination? There is a clear conflict on this matter in the human rights legislation framework and the EU directive, so why do the Government take one position as opposed to another?
Meg Munn: If the hon. Gentleman lets me get to the end of my speech, he will hear my explanation of why we have taken the views that we have.
On the National Blood Service, we have provided a targeted exemption to allow differential treatment only where supported by sound epidemiological evidence. We have done that on the advice of the Department of Health.
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): On the point about civil partnerships, will the Minister explain the difference from the Northern Ireland regulations? On blood donation, is it the view of the Minister and the Department that giving blood is receiving a service? If it is, and it therefore needs to be covered, why was it not covered in Northern Ireland? Could people choose to travel to Northern Ireland to give blood so that they are protected from discriminatory questioning?
Meg Munn: On civil partnerships, we took the view that the issue needed clarity. As the hon. Gentleman knows, a significant number of civil partnerships have been formed since the legislation came into force just over a year ago. On the National Blood Service, we introduced the provision on the advice of the Department of Health. I am not able to answer for the Northern Ireland regulations.
The Government have worked to find a pragmatic way to ensure that faith-based adoption agencies carry on their excellent work, while ensuring that there is no watering down of the right of same-sex couples to apply to adopt. As the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) knows, that point was made many times during the passage of the adoption legislation. People do not have a right to adopt, only a right to apply to adopt, and their suitability as prospective adoptive parents is what the assessment process is about. That approach will help to prevent any abrupt disruption and give faith-based agencies time to adjust to the new regime.
Mr. Brazier: The Minister referred to the right to apply to adopt, but the principal right is surely the child’s, as she, I and everyone one else on the Committee that considered the legislation agreed. How can it be in children’s best interests for organisations and social workers whose ethos is that marriage is best for the child to be allowed to continue only if they reject that ethos for assessment?
Meg Munn: The most important thing in placing a child is that they have suitable parents who are able to provide a loving and supportive home.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Will the Minister give way?
Meg Munn: I am answering the question asked by the hon. Member for Canterbury. The only thing that should be judged in determining whether a person is a suitable foster parent or adoptive parent is whether they provide the right circumstances in a home. That is what the Government require.
Jeremy Corbyn: Will the Minister confirm that an agency’s adopting a discriminatory practice would damage the rights of the child and would be illegal under legislation on children, which states that children should be open to the protection of all equalities legislation?
Meg Munn: Adoption is enormously complex. What is most important is to ensure that we have the widest range and availability of adoptive parents. Hon. Members should never lose sight of the fact that there are children seeking adoptive homes who do not have them. It is discriminatory to say to certain people that, because of a particular reason, they are not suitable, or that we will not even consider whether they are suitable. The Government are not happy to agree to such a situation.
Mr. Hayes: The Minister says that she wants the widest range of options in relation to providing children with appropriate parents, but the agencies are critical to that. If the number of agencies is limited, there will not be the widest possible source of parents to match to children—particularly damaged and disadvantaged children. Will not the Minister agree that there is a paradox at the heart of her position? She wants the voluntary and faith-based sector to take a role and responsibility in this sphere, but is prepared to let them do so only if they do precisely what the Government demand, even if that is contrary to their ethos, way of being and historical practice.
Meg Munn: I cannot see why allowing people to discriminate would increase the number of adoption agencies. It seems to me that the less discrimination there is, the more adoptive parents there will be.
Mr. Redwood: Will the Minister give way on that very point?
Meg Munn: I need to make progress so that the Opposition Front-Bench spokespeople can have their say. Other hon. Members may well catch your eye then, Mrs. Dean.
The regulations follow part 2 of the Equality Act 2006 in not providing for statutory protection from harassment. The recent legislative scrutiny report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights noted complexities in providing statutory protection from harassment outside the workplace. That echoes concerns raised during the passage of the 2006 Act. In the consultation, we were clear that that cross-cutting issue should be considered as part of the discrimination law review, which we intend to publish shortly.
The regulations will include a targeted exemption in respect of insurance that will have the same effect as provisions in the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and regulations made under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. The insurance industry already has a code on those matters. According to the existing code, insurers should not ask about someone’s sexual orientation or negative HIV tests to use as a factor when considering whether to insure them; however, they may ask about lifestyles or behaviour, regardless of sexual orientation, that might put an individual at greater risk. The targeted exemption will support that evidence-based approach while ensuring that prejudice against gay people will not be a reason for charging someone extortionate premiums for their mortgage insurance.
Our intention is that the exemption will not apply beyond the end of 2008. We will work with the insurance industry and others to ensure that, if any exemption is required beyond 2008, it reflects a genuine need in the industry and is in line with industry best practice. We will legislate accordingly.
Angela Eagle: I know that my hon. Friend has just set some of it out, but I want to ask about the thinking behind the exemption. Some exemptions are gender-based—actuarial evidence demonstrates that women live longer, so there are slightly different calculations where insurance is concerned—but there is no actuarial evidence that gay men do not live as long as straight men, for example. The issue is lifestyle choices, which can be made by heterosexuals or gay and lesbian people. Will the Minister explain a bit more about why she thought the exemption appropriate? I accept that it is time-limited.
Meg Munn: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. The subject formed part of the discussions that arose from the consultation. The Government have listened to people’s views. She is absolutely right to say that this is a lifestyle issue. We thought it appropriate to include the exemption because of the discussions. However, as she rightly pointed out—I want to reiterate this because it is important—we intend the exemption not to apply beyond the end of 2008.
Mr. Redwood: Will the Minister give way?
Meg Munn: I need to make progress. The regulations apply to the delivery of education and are intended to reinforce the existing statutory framework for schools. The Government are clear that all education establishments will be treated equally under the regulations to provide all children with the opportunity to learn in a safe environment that is free from discrimination. The regulations will not require changes in the current curriculum, nor will they force schools to change how they deliver an education to their pupils.
Mr. Cash: On a point of order, Mrs. Dean. The Minister referred to the legal position. I want to come back to my point in the earlier point of order. In the context of the European directive, which is the basis of the order, how can the regulations create a legal position up to 31 December but an illegal position for the rest of the time?
The Chairman: That is not a point of order for the Chair.
Meg Munn: Let me clarify. The order has nothing to do with any European directive. The power is in the Equality Act 2006; the human rights balance has been looked at by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which has endorsed our approach.
The regulations will not require changes in the current curriculum or force schools to change how they deliver an education to their pupils, provided that they follow the current statutory and non-statutory guidelines.
Mr. Howarth: Will the Minister give way?
Meg Munn: No. The regulations will ensure that no school or educational establishment will be able to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation when selecting pupils for admission, providing access to benefits or facilities, or when deciding whether to exclude a pupil. For example, a school can no longer prevent a student from becoming head girl on the grounds of her sexual orientation, nor will a teacher be allowed to single out a child for ridicule or criticism because they have same-sex parents.
The regulations represent an historic step forward towards dignity, respect and fairness for all. I am confident that they strike the right balance between freedom of expression and the right to live free from discrimination. They will provide protection on a par with that provided for other grounds and help tackle the ongoing discrimination still faced by lesbian, gay and bisexual people in their everyday lives. I beg to move the order.
9.37 am
Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I ask you, Mrs. Dean, to forgive my rather inelegant stance. I have a broken leg, which makes it difficult for me to stand up and sit down quickly. However, it does not make it difficult for me to think and reason quickly.
The Chairman: Do you wish to remain seated?
Mrs. Laing: No, thank you, Mrs. Dean. I can stand up as long as I do not have to jump up and down like a jack in the box.
Like other hon. Members, I am pleased at last to have an opportunity to debate this important and sensitive issue. The number of people in the Committee Room this morning shows the extent to which these important regulations are a matter of public interest. They deal with a sensitive issue and it is disappointing that the short time available for debate is being further eroded by the argument over procedure which, if the Government had proceeded in a different way, would not have been necessary. Such important legislation should have been allocated enough time and enough notice should have been given to allow proper debate. I will not raise any further matters with you, Mrs. Dean, because you have had to deal with a lot of procedural matters this morning, which have eaten into the time of the debate. That is unfortunate because this is an important debate and we ought to get on with the meat of it.
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Is it correct that Her Majesty’s official Opposition were content to have the regulations dealt with in a Standing Committee rather than on the Floor of the House? That was certainly the implication of the Minister’s comment.
Mrs. Laing: I will come to that. It is technically correct that all parties have agreed that this is the only procedure that is possible, given how the Government introduced this part of the legislation in the first place. If hon. Members have not followed the history of the Equality Act 2006, they may not realise that the section on sexual orientation was added in Committee stage in the House of Lords.
Mr. Cash: It was on Third Reading.
Mrs. Laing: It was added during the passage of the Bill in the House of Lords by means of an amendment, which the Government accepted. That part of the Act is therefore rather out of step with the rest of the Act. That is why some of the anomalies have arisen.
Angela Eagle: Will the hon. Lady give way?
Mrs. Laing: In a moment, I will. That is why there could be a clash between one part of the Act and another. I do not consider it to be a fatal clash that causes or should cause the Act or a part of it to fall, but the problem would not have occurred had the Government planned the legislation properly and in advance.
John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?
Mrs. Laing: I will first give way to the hon. Member for Wallasey.
Angela Eagle: I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. Can she be given permission to stay standing when hon. Members intervene, Mrs. Dean? It is generous of her to allow interventions and she should not suffer physical pain as a result.
The hon. Lady has talked about how the relevant part of the Equality Act developed and expressed doubt about it, which I can understand. However, will she confirm my impression that she actually welcomes the development and sees it as a civilising and good thing?
Mrs. Laing rose—
The Chairman: I am happy for the hon. Lady to remain standing if someone intervenes.
Mrs. Laing: Thank you, Mrs. Dean. It is good to be treated with such chivalry this morning.
I confirm to the hon. Lady that, yes, I do welcome the development. When the amendments that were made in the other place came to the House of Commons, we were happy to accept them. I had always thought that if the Government were bringing under one umbrella—the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights—five so-called strands of inequality discrimination that ought to be put right, there should be a sixth, namely, sexual orientation. It is absolutely correct that that should be done.
John Bercow: Pursuant to the intervention made by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and the reply given my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest, may I take the opportunity to clarify the procedural position as I understand it because it might elucidate further discussion?
The Minister for Women and Equality said to me approximately a fortnight ago that the Government were minded to put the matter into a statutory instrument Committee, but that, if a request came through the usual channels for it to be debated on the Floor of the House, the Government would be receptive to such a request. I notified my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) of that and asked whether she would like to make such a request but, after reflection, she said that the official Opposition would make no such request. Although a debate on the Floor of the House is preferable, I must exonerate the Government of some of the malpractice that is being alleged. It is simply not factually true in terms of the record.
Mrs. Laing: I thank my hon. Friend for clarifying the situation. It is not for me to speak for my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead, but I am sure that whatever she said and did was absolutely correct.
I have said on many occasions that we ought to have a wider debate on the regulations. I shall not address specific procedure this morning, Mrs. Dean. You have ruled that it has been properly dealt with and I do not want to take up any more of the Committee’s time on it because there are matters of substance to be debated.
The Minister will confirm that I wrote to the Secretary of State on 23 October last year asking her to publish the regulations in draft or at least to publish the Government’s response to the consultation in plenty of time so that an informed debate could take place. However, the Government allowed only one week to elapse between the publication of their response and the regulations and the proceedings of the Committee today. However, a bundle of 34 regulations is not much for anyone to read in a week, so we should proceed with the argument.
Mr. Grieve: I had the pleasure of serving with my hon. Friend in Committee on the Equality Bill and looking at the other clauses. It does not matter whether the matter is taken on the Floor of the House or in Committee. The problem with the procedure is that it is a completely unsuitable method of considering such a number of complex clauses of detailed legislation. One look at the regulations is enough to identify areas of inherent conflict with other parts of the main legislation which we have been put on the statute book. The problem is that the House is making a mockery of itself by proceeding in this fashion. Those, including myself, who wish to see sensible provisions that protect people from discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation do not see how we are going to arrive at a sensible outcome. Instead, we will actually promote a great deal of litigation and money for lawyers. Although that might be thought to be to my personal advantage, it is not something that I would wish on anyone. The procedure is a nonsense—it is not suitable to deal with this matter by way of statutory instrument. We have written to the Government to explain that in moderate and sensible terms.
Mrs. Laing: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. We spent many hours in good-tempered and well measured debate about other parts of the Equality Bill, now the Equality Act, and the legislation is better for it. That is the purpose of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Parliament’s purpose is to hold the Government to account and to amend and improve legislation. It is most unfortunate that, today, we are unable to amend the regulations or to discuss proposed amendments in detail, as we did in Committee in relation to other parts of the Act.
It is unfortunate that the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments considered the regulations yesterday afternoon and that this Committee was only appointed at 5 pm yesterday. I was going to say that it is a tribute to Whips Offices of all parties that anyone was here at 5 minutes to 9 this morning. However, I am pleased to note that the Whips Offices do not control what happens in Parliament. We have a great deal of free speech, totally unconnected with anything that any Whip will have asked anyone to do in Parliament today.
Mr. Cash: Will my hon. Friend confirm that section 81 of the Act was introduced at the very last minute on Third Reading in the House of Lords and that there was no Division on that section in the House of Commons? Would she also be kind enough to tell me why, if that is her view, there should be a tipping point in favour of sex discrimination questions as compared to those on freedom of conscience and freedom of religion?
Mrs. Laing: On my hon. Friend’s first point, I am grateful to him for clarifying that. He is absolutely correct. His second point is a matter for my substantive argument on which I am just about to embark. Before I do so, I will give way one more time.
Dr. Harris: I want to support the point made by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield. During the passage of the Equality Bill, I pointed out—as, I believe, did the hon. Gentleman—that it was unsatisfactory that these regulations were not amendable primary legislation, so that such debates could take place, that that would cause problems for the Government in seeking to explain their position clearly, and that those of us who support these regulations are in a difficult position in having to support section 81, while at the same time registering our protest that these provisions were passed through statutory instrument.
Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull and I signed the early-day motion calling for these regulations to be taken on the Floor of the House. Although we support them, we believe that they should be widely debated, so that all Members who have strong views—in all parties and across all parties—can express them and show their constituents that they have done so. Debating the regulations by way of statutory instrument in a Committee such as this, even one as well attended as this, fails to give Members that opportunity. I deeply regret that.
Mrs. Laing: I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. Like him, I want this legislation to succeed and to work. However, it would have commanded far more respect from its opponents had they had a better opportunity to put their arguments. It is always far better to win a case in open and honest argument than to be made to be quiet because of a procedural matter and the overuse of government power.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I, too, signed the early-day motion that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon referred to, because I would have preferred to have a full debate on the Floor of the House after which, most importantly, everyone would have been able to vote according to their conscience. However, the hon. Lady is completely misleading herself—and, for that matter, the Committee—if she really believes that all the Members who have come to debate this statutory instrument, and who have never gathered to discuss any other statutory instrument in the morning, would suddenly have changed their views and had enormous respect for the legislation—
The Chairman: Order.
Chris Bryant: Inadvertently misleading the Committee, Mrs. Dean. The hon. Lady is inadvertently misleading the Committee by suggesting that those Members would suddenly have changed their views if the debate had been on the Floor of the House. She knows that that is not true.
Mrs. Laing: It is not possible, Mrs. Dean, for me to mislead the House or the Committee, inadvertently or not, as to the minds of my hon. Friends, as I have no idea what is in their minds. I take no responsibility whatever for their content.
Mr. Redwood: Many of us want to ban discrimination, but we do not want to ban the freedoms of conscience and choice at the same time. The majority of clothes shops in this country discriminate against me, as a man, because they sell clothes only for women. I see nothing wrong with that, because, fortunately, there are other shops that sell clothes only for men—[Hon. Members: “Come out, John, and be honest about this.”] We should not say to all women’s clothes shops that they have to sell clothes that are suitable for normal men.
Chris Bryant: Ah, normal. You would not stand a chance.
The Chairman: Order.
Mr. Redwood: We are banning something that is a necessary choice for people of a certain faith. I am not a Catholic, but I am quite happy for there to be Catholic agencies.
Mrs. Laing: I take my right hon. Friend’s point but I am not sure that it is correct, because it is possible for a man to be a customer in a ladies clothes shop. There is nothing wrong with a man buying clothes for a lady. They usually get it wrong and the clothes have to be taken back and changed for something else, but, technically, there is nothing wrong with that.
Mr. Duncan Smith: I shall not follow up the sedentary comments that were aimed at my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham; some closets must remain firmly shut. However, I do want to follow up the rather specious point made by the hon. Member for Rhondda about people not changing their opinions.
It is possible to agree with large sections of proposed legislation while being concerned about other sections. Many of us have been contacted by constituents who are concerned about Catholic adoption agencies and about the impact that the measures will have on education. We want to make those points in a debate and to tease those matters out. We want to be able to tell our constituents, “We tried to get this changed,” or, “We got it changed,” or, “The Government listened and modified it.” The debate should be about modifying legislation and making it good, rather than just railroading it through because it was conceived by the Government—who, by the way, are not always right, whether they are Conservative or Labour. We should have that opportunity. That is what is wrong. Will the Minister please take those sentiments back to her Front-Bench colleagues? Some of us are particularly unhappy about the position that Government Front Benchers have taken on this matter.
Mrs. Laing: My right hon. Friend of course makes a valid and important point. I have taken on board what he said, and I am sure that others will also have done so.
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): Will my hon. Friend acknowledge that although we might be angry—I spoke on Second Reading and said that the measures are entirely unsuited to regulations and should be in a Bill—if we were to hold the debate downstairs in the Chamber we would no more be able to change the regulations than we can in Committee?
Chris Bryant: So why are you trying to oppose them?
Mr. Swayne: I am making a point sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman. The reality is that had we held this debate on the Floor of the House, the same Members would have been present. We would have had no longer than we have in the Committee and we would no more have been able to change the regulations than we can now.
Mrs. Laing: My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. I want to move on, but the real point of substance is the one that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield and I during the passage of the Equality Bill. We said time and again that legislation as important as this should go through the usual three stages of consideration in the House. That has not happened. It has now been said that there is a problem, and we all recognise it. I hope that the defective way in which the legislation has been brought forward will not mean that it does not work well when it comes into force.
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): Perhaps the hon. Lady is going to proceed in the direction that I hope she will. We have just about got the message that the Opposition are not happy with the procedure, but they have an opportunity to explain their attitudes towards the principles of the statutory instrument. Is the basic position of the Opposition that they agree in principle with everything in it, apart from the issue of faith-based adoption agencies?
Mrs. Laing: It is not quite as simple as that. If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I shall continue with what I wish to say.
One of my concerns about the timing of the Committee and the fact that it was appointed only last night is that we all know that there are strong feelings on the matter. Many interest groups and organisations would have wished to make representations to members of the Committee in advance of the debate. That was rather difficult, as we did not know who would be on the Committee until last night. I consider myself a fundamental upholder of democracy, and it is important that not only Members of the House but the people whom we represent throughout the whole country, on all sides of every argument, should be given the opportunity to put their arguments to us and therefore to Parliament and the legislature.
Mrs. Laing: I entirely take my hon. Friend’s point. He is one of the most reasonable Members of the House and, indeed, a relentless inclusionist. It is unfortunate that because of the way in which we are having to deal with the regulations, he is prevented from registering his true opinions and concerns.
I wish to proceed, because I want other members of the Committee to have an opportunity to speak as well as to intervene. Given that the Lords amendment that we have mentioned was tabled 16 months ago, it is unfortunate that we saw these regulations only last week. It is particularly unfortunate for the people whom we represent, including the many interest groups who have brought their views and concerns to our notice, that Members have not had a better opportunity to consider the legislation.
Mr. Binley: Will my hon. Friend give way?
Mrs. Laing: I am sorry, I cannot give way, but perhaps my hon. Friend will have a chance to speak later.
Mr. Binley: On a point of order, Mrs. Dean, I object to being told by another member of the Committee that other members of it cannot take part in the debate. That is the very essence of the complaint being made today.
The Chairman: That is not the case.
Mrs. Laing: I certainly think that my hon. Friend should take part. However, I am conscious that it is now 10 o’clock and we have only 25 minutes of debate left.
We support the principle of equality and we support the Equality Act 2006.
Chris Bryant: Hooray!
Mrs. Laing: The hon. Gentleman should not be surprised. I have said that many times, as the Minister knows. It follows from that that we believe that discrimination on any grounds should be prohibited. We in the Conservative party truly believe in the freedom of the individual and in freedom of conscience. We are addressing matters of individual belief and of conscience, so although I support the introduction of the regulations and, if a Division is called, I shall vote for them, I do not require my hon. Friends to do likewise. I shall, of course, encourage them to vote with me, but I respect their honestly held points of view and they are free to vote as they wish. That is the very essence of the matter; we are discussing tolerance in our society. I would argue that the mark of a civilised society—and, indeed, of a respected religion—is that it tolerates those whom it does not like as well as those whom it likes.
Ironically, it would have been in the Government’s interests to publish the regulations sooner because, as a consequence of their failure to allow proper debate, there have been many months of ill-informed debate in the media about what the regulations contain, what they mean and what their consequences will be. In fact, once one has the opportunity to read them properly and to analyse them, one finds that they are pretty reasonable. It is a classic case of fear of the unknown, and it is unfortunate that so much of this morning’s debate has been taken up with that fear.
Now that we know what is in the regulations, it is not difficult to support them. However, because there has been so much misinformation, I must ask the Minister to help with a few more points in addition to those that she has already clarified. For example, surely there is no intention—nor should it be a consequence of the regulations—that a minister of religion should be required to perform a civil partnership ceremony. [Interruption.] To save time, the Minister indicates that the answer is no, of course that will not be required. Likewise, surely there is no intention, and nor should it be a consequence of the regulations, that a school teacher should be required to give his or her pupils books about homosexuality.
Meg Munn: indicated assent.
Mrs. Laing: Again, the Minister has indicated that the answer is that there is no such intention. I simply want to illustrate the fact that there has been much misinformation. Let us get that out of the way and talk about what the regulations actually mean.
There are many intricate points that I should like to discuss, but in order to allow others to make proper speeches rather than interventions, I shall not take up much more of the Committee’s time. The Minister has already confirmed that matters relating to insurance will be time-limited. Will she now confirm by what means that time limit will be enforced, and how we can monitor it? Likewise, there is enormous concern about the position of adoption agencies, particularly Catholic adoption agencies, which do such excellent and important work.
Mr. Leigh: Will my hon. Friend give way?
Mrs. Laing: I cannot give way again to my hon. Friend. People might be misled into thinking that these regulations are about adoption. They are not. The position of Catholic adoption agencies is a very small element of the debate, and I want to concentrate on the other 99 per cent. of what the regulations will mean to people throughout the United Kingdom.
There is great concern about adoption agencies. I want the transition period, which the Government have introduced by means of the regulations, and the duty to refer, to work. Will the Minister undertake to report to the House on how the exemption and the duty to refer are working, so that adoption agencies can continue their good work, but there is no discrimination?
As to the essence of the balance we are discussing, I have been approached by many groups who are concerned about this measure and every one has a valid point; but it has made me think about how we can balance the honest right of someone who holds a particular religious viewpoint with those of other groups in society. How will we achieve peace and harmony in our society if we do not say to people, “Live and let live, and respect those who are different from you”?
I have thought about my own brand of Christianity. It is a simple, Church of Scotland brand based on what I believe, which is what my grandmother taught me: “You should do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. It is a very simple outlook on life and there is no place in it for discrimination. However, I hope that all sides of the argument will be heard this morning.
Mr. Brazier: Will my hon. Friend give way?
Mrs. Laing: I will give way one more time to my hon. Friend.
Mr. Brazier: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, who has been generous in giving way. In the case of adoption, we are talking about several hundred children who go before voluntary agencies, of which the most successful is the Catholic Children’s Society. They are the most disadvantaged children in the country, and many of them are badly damaged and difficult to place. The people who make the decisions inevitably have to select various factors that they think will make people good parents. Are we really saying that it should no longer be possible for those who believe that marriage between a man and a woman is a key factor in selecting parents to help these desperately disadvantaged children?
Mrs. Laing: No, I do not believe we are saying that. At this stage, I do not wish to get into the intricacies of adoption law. It is the case that a child brought up in a stable marriage situation has certain advantages in life, but it certainly does not mean that a child brought up in a household that does not contain two parents who are married to one another has to be disadvantaged. I feel that very, very strongly.
Angela Eagle: Will the hon. Lady give way?
Mrs. Laing: I cannot give way again, because other people must be allowed to speak. I feel very strongly about that point and so do many, many of my hon. Friends. Marriage is perhaps the best way, but it does not mean that there are not other ways of bringing up a child that are equally valid and give a child an equally good start in life. That is the point of this proposal; it is about balance, not about extremes. It is not about taking an entrenched point of view; it is about recognising that in our society today people live in all sorts of different ways. Instead of trying to discriminate against people who are different from us, we should be embracing everyone in our society and living peacefully together.
Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?
Mrs. Laing: No, I cannot give way again. I recognise that there is potentially a clash of opinion between one group of people and another, each of whom argues that the law should protect them and allow them freely to practise on one hand their sexual orientation, and on the other hand their religious belief. It is for Parliament to balance the rights and responsibilities of one group of people with those of another, and that is the difficult task before us. The legislation is not perfect. It could have been better, but on balance I shall choose the lesser of two evils and support it.
In an article from 24 January about such issues, the Archbishop of Canterbury said:
“The rights of conscience cannot be made subject to legislation, however well meaning.”
He is of course absolutely right. However, the legislation—now that we know what is in it—does not do what the archbishop feared that it might do. That is the important point that we must reflect on when considering whether to pass the regulations. No one will be required to change or relinquish their conscience or beliefs as a result of the regulations; but each of us will be required to moderate our actions and behaviour in order to accommodate those who are different from ourselves. That is a good principle on which to make legislation and I hope that most hon. Members will support the regulations.
Several hon. Members rose
The Chairman: Order. We have less than 15 minutes for the rest of the debate, so I urge hon. Members to be brief. I shall call the Liberal Front-Bench spokesman in a moment. I hope that other hon. Members whom I call will try to limit themselves to a couple of minutes. I want to call all shades of opinions, so please be helpful to each other.
10.11 am
Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I will try my absolute best to be as brief as possible and to confine my remarks to the substance of the issue, not the process. It would be helpful if any hon. Members who wish to intervene on me could also confine themselves to that, too. Having said that, I have great sympathy for the Conservative Members who are trying to get into this debate. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, I signed the early-day motion requesting that the regulations be debated on the Floor of the House.
We have actually had this debate before, when the Northern Ireland regulations came forward. What we are discussing this morning is substantially the same as those regulations. However, I do not recall seeing so many hon. Members coming along to discuss them. Although the regulations that we are debating are substantially the same, I should like to discuss two additions that have been made. Although the Minister alluded to them, I should be grateful for some further comment.
The second new element relates to the insurance industry. I suspect that there have been discussions behind the scenes, because the insurance industry has profited from charging higher life insurance premiums for gay men, while not reducing premiums for lesbian women. However, there has been no consultation on that subject. The Government appear to be using the regulations as an instrument to require the insurance industry to get its act together by 2008.
It is important that we address the concerns of some Christians—and presumably people of other religions, too, although I have received no submissions from other religions. The majority of Christians accept the need for the regulations. However, from correspondence that I have received and discussions that I have had, it is fair to say that some wings of the Christian Church feel under threat. It appears that teachings about the supremacy of a family consisting of a father, mother and children are being challenged. The right to promulgate the view that homosexuality is sinful or wrong is seen to be threatened. I understand that.
Jeremy Wright: Does the hon. Lady agree that one of the problems with such legislation is not that the rights that they express are wrong, but that they might come into conflict with other rights? For example, the assumption that orientation regulations are purely concerned with orientation is not borne out by the Government’s examples. In a legal context, problems might arise because the regulations are not just about orientation but about the practice and expression of a person’s sexuality, which could create a conflict. A person may be permitted to express their religious beliefs, but not to act on them. That is where the legal conflict might arise.
Lorely Burt: I apologise for being insufficiently adept in legal affairs to be able to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question. Perhaps the Minister can do better than me.
With only 4 per cent. of British people regularly attending church, the Church is entitled to feel under threat.
Angela Eagle: Public money is involved. We are talking about a framework of rights that allow equal access to goods and services. We are talking not about freedom of conscience or expression but about fair access to goods and services for British citizens—plain and simple. Why should an individual with a certain belief be able to use public money to give a service and then to discriminate against a group of people simply because of their orientation? Surely, that is what this is about.
Lorely Burt: I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention, which I understood a lot better than that from the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth.
Dr. Harris: I may be able to help the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth and my hon. Friend. In its report, the Joint Committee on Human Rights stated clearly:
“Nobody is required by the Regulations”—
these are the Northern Ireland regulations, but the analogy applies—
“not to have beliefs about the morality of different sexual orientations... In our view, the prohibitions on discrimination in the Regulations limit the manifestation of those religious beliefs and that limitation is justifiable in a democratic society for the protection of the right of gay people not to be discriminated against in the provision of goods, facilities and services.”
However, when gay people sleep with each other—I think that that is what the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth was referring to—they are not interfering with the right of the hon. Gentleman to do whatever he likes in his bedroom with whomever.
Lorely Burt: I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend.
John Bercow: The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe very reasonably challenged Conservative Members to say where they stood on this matter. If there is any doubt, I would like to take the opportunity. I put it to the hon. Member for Solihull that as a result of widespread discrimination, too many gay, lesbian and bisexual people in this country have suffered too much for too long and with too little done about it. I put it to her that in human terms—that is the most important point in this debate—the regulations will be welcomed by millions of gay, lesbian and bisexual people as a force for liberation and a recognition that in a modern civilised society they should enjoy equality before the law.
Lorely Burt: I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I could not have put it better myself. I agree totally.
On the point about free speech, I support entirely the right of any Church to espouse its beliefs. The Liberal Democrats lobbied the Government to remove the harassment clauses from the Northern Ireland regulations. I am not sure how effective that was, but I am delighted to see that they have now been removed.
Mr. Grieve: The hon. Lady raises an important issue relating to the question of how far religion or religious belief should henceforth be carried into the public sphere out of the private sphere. One of the issues that I would have teased out by tabling an amendment relates to the following situation. If a website designer who has Christian principles is asked to design a website promoting gay sexual relations—about which, I wish to make clear, there is nothing illegal—and he wishes to say, “Sorry, I do not want to do that”, the way in which the regulations are drafted mean that he will be breaking the law. Until this House cottons on to the extent to which that marks a profound change between tolerance and enforcing a new form of orthodoxy, we will fail to grapple properly with the problems that the regulations pose. I can cite many other examples that cut both ways.
Lorely Burt: Given the example that the hon. Gentleman makes, that website designer presumably offers a commercial service and if someone wanted him to design a website promoting heterosexual relations, because he is offering a public service, he should be prepared to extend the same service.
I will go on to talk about schools because I know that many people are concerned about that issue.
Angela Eagle: There are four minutes left.
Lorely Burt: Perhaps I will not talk about schools then other than to say that the regulations do not cover the actual subjects being taught in schools or the rights of teachers to express their views on sexual orientation based on their particular religion, provided that it is done appropriately, for example, in response to questions in a class on religious education.
I will forget about the rest of my speech as it is important that other hon. Members get an opportunity to speak, except to say that the instrument is very welcome. It will not end prejudice against non-heterosexuals, but it will, at least, create fairness in the provision of goods and services. In 20 years time we will look back and view discrimination against homosexual men, lesbians and bisexuals in the same way that we now view discrimination against women and ethnic minorities; as something that is entirely unacceptable and has no place in a tolerant and civilised society.
10.23 am
Mr. Burrowes: As we have only seven minutes left, in accordance with your guidance issued at the beginning of the Committee, Mrs. Dean, I wish to move a dilatory motion. Considering that the regulations must be in force by 13 April, there is a suspicion that timeliness is associated not with getting the regulations on to the statute book but with the Scottish elections that are just around the corner. I move the motion and invite hon. Members to divide on it.
The Chairman: I am not prepared to accept that motion. I remind the hon. Gentleman that we have only until 10.25 am.
Chris Bryant: On a point of order, Mrs. Dean, it seems extraordinary that we have had a one and a half hour debate and, although it is not my place to question how you have called people, you will have called three people from the Opposition and only one from the Government side.
The Chairman: It is quite normal to call the Front-Bench spokesmen first, and the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate is the first Back-Bench Member whom I have called.
Mr. Boswell: On a further point of order, Mrs. Dean, I think that the base of the problem is structural. Back Benchers have had no time to raise issues on behalf of people who may support the regulations in principle, but have concerns about the details of their implementation. That is a real worry, and it is terribly unsatisfactory. I am torn between the substance and the process, and I must now make a decision on a substantive motion. It is a difficult situation, and we need to record our dissatisfaction.
The Chairman: I have to put the question now.
It being one and a half hours after the commencement of the proceedings, The Chairman put the Question necessary to dispose of the proceedings, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(5).
Question put accordingly:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 14, Noes 2.
Division No. 1 ]
Betts, Mr. Clive
Blackman, Liz
Boswell, Mr. Tim
Bryant, Chris
Burt, Lorely
Corbyn, Jeremy
Eagle, Angela
Fabricant, Michael
Follett, Barbara
Harris, Dr. Evan
Laing, Mrs. Eleanor
Munn, Meg
Palmer, Dr. Nick
Skinner, Mr. Dennis
Burrowes, Mr. David
Wright, Jeremy
Question accordingly agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the Draft Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007.
Committee rose at twenty-seven minutes past Ten o’clock.

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