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House of Commons
Session 2006 - 07
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Public Bill Committee Debates

Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Hywel Williams
Abbott, Ms Diane (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab)
Betts, Mr. Clive (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab)
Burt, Lorely (Solihull) (LD)
Corbyn, Jeremy (Islington, North) (Lab)
Durkan, Mark (Foyle) (SDLP)
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey) (Lab)
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester) (Lab)
Hanson, Mr. David (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office)
Harris, Dr. Evan (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD)
Hermon, Lady (North Down) (UUP)
Lancaster, Mr. Mark (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con)
McCafferty, Chris (Calder Valley) (Lab)
Mackay, Mr. Andrew (Bracknell) (Con)
Mactaggart, Fiona (Slough) (Lab)
Mates, Mr. Michael (East Hampshire) (Con)
Norris, Dan (Wansdyke) (Lab)
Prentice, Mr. Gordon (Pendle) (Lab)
Robertson, Mr. Laurence (Tewkesbury) (Con)
Robinson, Mrs. Iris (Strangford) (DUP)
Simon, Mr. Siôn (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab)
Simpson, David (Upper Bann) (DUP)
Skinner, Mr. Dennis (Bolsover) (Lab)
Snelgrove, Anne (South Swindon) (Lab)
Gordon Clarke, Jyoti Chandola, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(2):
Burrowes, Mr. David (Enfield, Southgate) (Con)
Crabb, Mr. Stephen (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con)

Second Delegated Legislation Committee

Wednesday 17 January 2007

[Hywel Williams in the Chair]

Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006

2.30 pm
David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006 (S. R. (N. I.) 2006, No. 439).
Welcome to the Chair, Mr. Williams. I am sure that we will have an interesting debate. I watched last Tuesday’s debate on these regulations in the other House and my noble Friend Lord Morrow made it clear what we are not saying in opposing them: we are not saying that homosexual people should be denied all sorts of basic services. If the regulations were annulled, that would not result in signs outside hotels and hospitals saying “No Homosexuals”, as some have claimed. That was not happening last year, before the regulations came in, and it would not start happening now.
We are saying that the regulations are an attack on religious freedom because they require people to approve of practices that their faith teaches are morally wrong. If a Christian body, in co-operation with the state, provides a care home for the elderly, it should not be forced to give a double room to a couple in a homosexual civil partnership. The Christian faith teaches that homosexuality is wrong, and that sex outside marriage is wrong. My understanding of the law is that such a home can continue to refuse double rooms to unmarried heterosexual couples, but not to civil partners.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Does not the hon. Gentleman also acknowledge that Christianity teaches tolerance, understanding, respect for people of different opinions and co-existence?
David Simpson: The hon. Gentleman’s question will be answered later in my speech.
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): The hon. Gentleman says that people should not be forced to approve of an activity—for example, by giving a double room in a care home or hotel to a couple who are not married or are gay—but what is forcing people to approve of anything? I do not know what he gets up to in his bedroom. Just because I have no problem with his doing what he wants, that does not mean that I approve of it. I might not, but it is none of my business. Why does he think that the regulations will force people to change their deeply held views on approval?
David Simpson: Again, all being well, those questions will be answered later in my speech.
Mr. Siôn Simon (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way again on the same point?
David Simpson: Not at this stage. I apologise, but I have only just turned the first page of my speech, and I hope that as we go along hon. Members will get a feel of what I am trying to say. I am sure that others on the other side of the argument will want to speak, too. It seems that a lot of interventions on a lot of issues will be thrown at me today.
I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed my understanding that homes can continue to refuse double rooms to unmarried heterosexual couples, but not to civil partners. Of course, the home would want to be accommodating and may offer single rooms to the people concerned. The issue is not that someone refuses to have anything to do with homosexual people, but that they refuse to endorse sin, as the Christian evangelical faith believes it to be, by providing the means for cohabitation.
Mr. Simon: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
David Simpson: I have only just started, so I will not at this stage, but I will in a few moments.
Mr. Simon: I shall keep asking.
David Simpson: Yes, that is the way to do it.
Let me illustrate the distinction in another way. It is one thing to serve a homosexual person a cup of coffee in a Christian bookshop—it is no problem at all, and Christians are glad to serve anyone—but quite another if he can sue someone for harassment because they explain the Gospel while serving the coffee, because of the environment that they are in.
Mr. Simon: The hon. Gentleman keeps stating that the Christian faith teaches, as he said explicitly earlier, that homosexuality is wrong. Does he accept that there are many very convinced Christians who do not believe that that is what it teaches and believe that it teaches that homosexuality is fine?
David Simpson: I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. Yes, there are those who profess faith in Jesus Christas Christians or evangelical Christians who say that homosexual relationships are right. That is their interpretation, but in my opinion the biblical view and the theology of scripture teach the opposite.
I hope that we can focus on real examples and not on the hysterical claims that we want to ban homosexuals from coming to church, and so on. I remember that some comments of that description were made in the debate in the other House, but it is not the case at all. I would be interested to know whether Committee members would like Christian bookshops to be sued in the circumstances that I just outlined.
The Government make much play of the religious exemption in regulation 16, but that regulation failsto cover harassment. It protects religious groupsin limited circumstances from being sued for discrimination, but does not prevent their being sued for harassment. We are talking not about harassment in the criminal law sense, but about civil harassment in the form that the Government have adopted, where a person’s perception that someone is offending them can be enough to found a claim. To some people, simply disagreeing with their homosexuality will be regarded as harassment.
Hon. Members will know that seven denominations are suing the Government over these regulations. They have been granted a judicial review, which will take place, I believe, in early March. James Dingemans QC is advising the denominations and argues that the regulations breach the Human Rights Act 1998 by elevating one set of rights over another. He says:
“Regulation 16 of the Regulations (recognised by the Government as vital to preserve the religious freedoms of religious organisations and to ensure that a fair balance is struck between article 9, rights of religious organisations, and article 8, rights of lesbians, gay men and bisexual people), does not apply to the harassment provisions. For example if holy sacraments were denied to lesbians, gay men and bisexual people, and the minister explained in orthodox theological terms the religious belief which justified this denial, it would be open for the lesbian, gay man or bisexual person to bring a claim for harassment complaining that this had the effect of ‘violating...dignity; or creating an intimidating...humiliating or offensive environment’.
Regulation 16 says that ‘nothing in these regulations shall make it unlawful for a restrict participation in activities carried on in the performance of his functions’. That exemption covers the refusal by the minister. It does not cover any subsequent explanations. It is difficult to resist concluding that this is an oversight (no doubt part explained by the inadequacy of the consultation on these provisions ).”
The Government claim that they intend regulation 16 to protect the ability of Churches to make decisions over Church membership, communion and other doctrinal issues, yet they failed to ensure protection from the harassment laws as well as the discrimination laws. This is a serious error, and a breach of the promise made to religious groups that their doctrinal activities would be protected.
Of course, the inclusion of harassment was one of the great surprises in these regulations. The goods and services laws on sex discrimination in Northern Ireland contain no harassment provision, and neither do those on religious or disability discrimination. Only race laws contain harassment provisions that apply to goods and services. I am sure that the Minister will confirm that. So, sexual orientation has been elevated above almost all other discrimination grounds.
Everybody knows that harassment law in goods and services is controversial. In employment, it is different, because that is an environment that people cannot escape from without resigning, but if they do not like the place where they get their goods and services they can go somewhere else. That is what most people do.
In November 2005, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats united in a vote in the other place to delete the religious harassment provision from part 2 of the Equality Bill on goods and services. They did so because they thought it was a threat to free speech. The Government accepted that, and the issue of harassment, with all its complexities and threats to freedom of speech, was referred to the discrimination law review. The issue is still being considered for Great Britain, but in Northern Ireland the Secretary of State is forcing through a harassment law without the benefit of the outcome of that review.
In the consultation paper on the regulations,there was no formal question on harassment. In fact, “Getting Equal” sets out reasons for not including harassment in the regulations. Paragraph 4.15 says that
“on the basis of the complex arguments put forward we are minded to accept that it is not appropriate to legislate for harassment within these regulations.”
In light of this, many people who oppose a harassment law did not mention it in their response. Had they known that such a law was seriously being considered by the Government, they would have objected.
Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s arguments. Perhaps he or the Minister will shed light on why Northern Ireland is being treated as such a special case and why the consultation there was shorter than the recommended 12 weeks, at only eight weeks and two days. Between the close of the consultation and the publication of the draft regulations there was just six weeks, compared with the six months’ consideration given to comparable submissions for Great Britain. Why are the regulations being imposed in this way in Northern Ireland, which obviously has particular sensitivities in these matters?
David Simpson: The hon. Gentleman has really directed that question to the Minister, but I will come to the consultation, which I believe was carried out when a lot of people were on holiday. I also believe that the Secretary of State is forcing this through now because he knows—the Minister and I spoke briefly about this earlier when we discussed the setting up of devolution—that if the Assembly was up and running, it would not approve the regulations. That is my personal view. The Minister heard the hon. Gentleman’s question, and perhaps he will respond to it at the very end.
One of the fundamental problems with the Government’s approach to this issue is the insistence on equating homosexuality with race. Homosexuality is about what people do, about their choices. A person who is regarded as a homosexual now, may in a few years’ time be regarded as a heterosexual.
Mr. Simon: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
David Simpson: No, I want to finish this point.
I could list examples of famous people who have changed from one to the other, but I will not. A song was sung some years ago, back in the 1970s. I shall not name the singer, but I am sure that those who are old enough to remember back to the 1970s may know of the song, “Glad to be Gay”. That individual is now happily married, with children, despite his protests of being still “gayish”. If homosexuality were fixed and immutable like race, nobody would be able to change—but they can.
We would be better off if the law treated homosexuality like religion instead of race. There are some things—environmental factors—that may predispose a person to choose one religion or another, but we regard religion as a matter of choice. It is similar with homosexuality: ultimately it is a choice. To say otherwise is to deny fundamental human autonomy.
Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?
David Simpson: No. [Hon. Members: “You must give way.”] Okay, I will give way.
Angela Eagle: I thank the hon. Gentleman. He is making a point that is clearly a personal opinion. Ican tell him from my personal experience that homosexuality—being gay—is a matter not of choice but of who you are.
David Simpson: Thank you. I apologise for not having given way earlier, but this is my speech and in it I am giving my personal opinion. There are bound to be many diverse comments on this subject, and I am sure that we will hear all the views from both sides soon after I have finished.
We would be better off if the law treated homosexuality like religion instead of race.
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): May I bring the hon. Gentleman on to the parallel point about sexual orientation and race? He is clearly arguing that in the provision of goods and services an individual’s religious beliefs should override the rights of someone who may be provided with those services. What happens if there is someone with a genuine religious belief that it is wrong to have sex between people of different races? If a black person and a white person wanted to hire a hotel room from that individual, would the law be right to allow him to refuse?
David Simpson: I have never met anyone of that view.
Mr. Betts: South Africa had a few.
David Simpson: That may be, but I have never met anyone of that view, so I will not comment on it. I am sure that others will make that point when their turn comes to speak.
If sexual orientation were treated in law more like religion, we would have fewer problems. The Northern Ireland legislation on religious discrimination contains much wider exemptions than these regulations and does not attempt to outlaw harassment in the provision of goods and services, but I believe that the Government are intent on taking a more extreme approach, and large numbers of religious people will suffer legal persecution as a result.
I feel that I have a duty to ask the Minister two simple, straightforward questions: what proofing against section 24 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 were the regulations subject to; and how satisfied is he, and on what basis, that they are in line with that legislation?
On the matter of religious concerns, I was interested to hear that the four largest religious denominations in Northern Ireland—the Presbyterians, the Roman Catholics, the Church of Ireland and the Methodists—met the Minster just before Christmas and were unimpressed with his claim that they would be protected by regulation 16. Coming from such moderate denominations, their statement of 20 December is all the more extraordinary, and it is worth quoting at length. Commenting on the religious exceptions, they say that
“these exceptions do not apply to individual Christians, nor are we convinced that they cover all circumstances in which the Churches will have to be guided by their doctrinal standards”—
Jeremy Corbyn: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
David Simpson: I have nearly finished this point, so I will not give way again on it.
—“or the sincerely held convictions of a significant proportion of their adherents. We are concerned that the Courts will be involved in deciding what is acceptable doctrine. This, of course, will not only apply to those with Christian belief but other faith groups also.
Also, we were not adequately assured that our concerns in relation to services provided by our Churches as part of our Christian witness were fully met. These include the provision of faith based adoption services, care of older people, education and marriage counselling.”
The statement goes on to say:
“We note that within the Westminster parliamentary process there will be some limited debate and a vote on these regulations in the early New Year. We call on our politicians to fully engage in this debate in order to ensure a balance of rights for all, including the protection of freedom of religion and individual conscience as part of a diverse and plural society in which everyone may feel an equal member.
We also expressed concern over the short time given for consultation”—
a point made earlier by the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate—
“on proposed legislation in Northern Ireland and that, although similar legislation in England is being reconsidered, it will be imposed on Northern Ireland using direct rule powers despite the many objections of churches and other groups.”
It is quite a trick to upset such a wide cross-section of Northern Ireland’s religious community. One would have hoped that the Government would take note. These people are not stupid; they are not being taken in by over-egged interpretation of the new laws but are looking at them carefully and soberly, presumably taking their own legal advice and listening carefully to the Minister’s explanations, and yet they are still worried. It is about time the Government took them seriously.
The Chairman: I call Maria Eagle—I mean Angela.
2.53 pm
Angela Eagle: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Williams, and thank you for correcting your twin error. It is an understandable mistake, as my sister is a Northern Ireland Minister, but I would not want people to mistake what I am saying for ministerial comments, because we have our own esteemed Minister in attendance who is not my sister.
I welcome these regulations as an entirely sensible, moderate, progressive advance in social policy, giving lesbian, gay and bisexual people in Northern Ireland the right to have access to and enjoy in a fair and equal way services, facilities and goods, without suffering discrimination on the grounds of their sexual orientation. People in Northern Ireland have had such protection in relation to their religious belief since 1998, and it pains me that many of those who object to this entirely sensible extension of such protection are the very people who have benefited from it for all that time. It is time they understood that it is not a huge threat to them if the sensible protections on the grounds of sexual orientation are extended to the citizens of Northern Ireland.
Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): It is, of course, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr. Williams.
Will the hon. Lady address one point? She will be well aware that the Government are bending over backwards to ensure that the party that the hon. Member for Upper Bann represents will sit in a restored Assembly by 26 March. Given that we areonly weeks away from the restoration of devolved Government in Northern Ireland, surely we should leave the regulations to that devolved Government, rather than bulldozing them through the House this afternoon.
Angela Eagle: Far be it from me to comment in detail on the many interesting differences between the two jurisdictions and the difficult and painful construction work to create peace in Northern Ireland and to get the Assembly up and running again, but I understand that if the Assembly is restored, devolved powers will allow these issues to be revisited.
These protections are sensible and do not deserve the hysterical response that they have received in some quarters with scaremongering and misrepresentation of their effect. We have all seen the adverts in the newspapers in this country and Northern Ireland claiming that Bibles will be banned from hotel rooms and that, although the regulations do not deal with education, children will be forced to regard the homosexual lifestyle on an equal basis with the heterosexual lifestyle. Such scaremongering completely misrepresents the narrow, welcome and modest advance that the regulations present.
The hon. Member for Upper Bann argued for exemptions—some of the objectors to the regulations also argued for them vociferously—that would legalise homophobia and bigotry. If we had exemptions that were wider than the narrow and acceptable doctrinal exemptions in the regulations, we would be sayingthat it is acceptable in part of the British Isles in the 21st century to allow pub, bed-and-breakfast or hotel providers to put up a sign on their front door saying “No homosexuals”, and that people who run shops or provide insurance or banking services would be allowed under the law to discriminate directly against lesbian, gay and bisexual people in the provision of their services.
I want to suggest gently that we change the sign from “gay, lesbian and bisexual” to, for example, “black”, “Catholic” or “Protestant”, and think about what we are arguing about when we consider exemptions. The regulations are modest and wholly reasonable, and I, for one, welcome the fact that the Government are introducing them today.
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I am following the hon. Lady’s very reasonable speech carefully. When she refers to exemptions, she will be aware that there are some non-religious exemptions, such as for smaller guest houses. Does she believethat those exemptions riddle the regulations with inconsistencies?
Angela Eagle: I, for one, think that the only way of dealing with these issues is to have the minimum number of exemptions. I think it is reasonable in the circumstances to have the narrow doctrinal exemption, but I do not believe that other exemptions are acceptable or desirable. The fewer exemptions, the better.
I was coming to the end of my remarks, because I do not want to detain the Committee. The proposals are entirely reasonable, sensible and moderate, and I, for one, welcome the fact that the Government have introduced them.
3 pm
Mr. Robertson: It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Lady and, indeed, the hon. Member for Upper Bann. I welcome you, Mr. Williams to the Committee.
I thank the Minister for the information that he was able to provide me, and I thank his officials, too. I have said before that such cross-party co-operation leads to a better informed debate, and this place should be all about that, rather than about following narrow party lines. The Conservative party has a free vote on the issue, although looking to my Back-Bench colleagues I find that neither of my hon. Friends the Members for Preseli Pembrokeshire and for Enfield, Southgate will be present for it. If they were present, it would be afree vote.
Mr. Simon: Government Members, who consider the matter to be one of principle, of politics and the exact opposite of a free vote, would be fascinated to learn why the new touchy-feely liberal Tories are having a free vote on what should be a bottom-line issue of proper politics.
Mr. Robertson: The hon. Gentleman has expressed his opinion, but I do not take that view. I wish that there were many more free votes in Parliament. The Chamber on a free vote is Parliament at its best. We might not have got into some of the mess that we are in if there had been more free votes.
Jeremy Corbyn: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr. Robertson: No, I have explained the position. The regulations are not about whether there should be a free vote, so the hon. Gentleman must excuse me.
I shall explain why I cannot support the regulations and why we will vote against them at the end of the sitting, which may run to full time, which is unusual for a Statutory Instrument Committee. Before anybody accuses me of objecting to anybody’s sexuality, I do not. I have friends who are heterosexual, who are in no relationships at all, who are homosexual, who are white, black, Asian, men, women and so on. Unlike many hon. Members, I have always supported the concept of women priests, and I support the ordination to the priesthood of well behaving heterosexualsand homosexuals. I support meritocracy; I object to discrimination and I also object to positive discrimination, a disruptive feature that is creeping into national life.
I believe, too, in people’s lifestyle choices, and that it is up to the individual how they live their lives as long as they do not damage other people. I have had my private life examined by the national newspapers, if we can call the Daily Mail and the News of the World newspapers; I would question whether they are worth the paper on which they are written. They have none the less questioned my private life, and I find it intrusive and none of their business. That is where I come from on this particular issue.
Angela Eagle: If the hon. Gentleman supports all those ideas, he is obviously a progressive force in his religion, whichever it is. However, does he really believe that sexual orientation is a lifestyle choice?
Mr. Robertson: I would probably agree with the hon. Lady’s analysis. The hon. Member for Upper Bann is right to a limited extent: possibly people are unsure about their sexuality, and they perhaps question it and change. However, a high percentage of people—I do not know whether it is 80 per cent. or 95 per cent.—probably do not have a choice.
I regret the regulations because they intrude into sexual behaviour. It is a private matter, and when we try to legislate on such issues, we get into difficult situations. We are bringing a private matter into the legislative arena, and it is not always good for Parliament to do that. Some things are a matter not for Parliament but for personal behaviour and of private conscience. Even if we disagree with certain thingsand certain behaviour—I totally disagree with discrimination—heavy-handed legislation is not always the best way to sort that out. It tends to polarise positions, as the regulations have done. Perhaps the balance that we require is too delicate to be struck by legislation.
It has been said that those of us who oppose this measure somehow endorse the putting up of signs saying “Blacks not welcome here” or “Gays not welcome here”. As the hon. Member for Upper Bann said, such behaviour is not happening now, so I do not see why it should happen in future. If it were to happen, I would condemn it. I condemn a lot of behaviour that is not illegal. That is the point that I am trying to make.
Mr. Betts: Given that we have laws on racial discrimination, is the hon. Gentleman saying that the laws on this should be different and that they should prohibit discrimination on grounds of race but allow it on grounds of sexual orientation? We are talking about the same sort of activity.
Mr. Robertson: I am not quite saying that. I think that the hon. Member for Upper Bann had it about right when he said that this is a different matter. The legislation on race discrimination has gone through. I have not considered that question fully, but perhaps I may be allowed to explain why I do not think these regulations should be enacted.
We ought to be careful about initiating legislation where it could in many circumstances be unenforceable. Is a guest house, late in the evening, full or are guests being turned away because they are homosexual? What constitutes harassment? Subjective judgments would be made on such questions and I am not sure that it is for the courts to make them. I might as well be totally controversial, so I shall discuss the example of the hunting ban. I understand that more people are hunting now—I am not one of them—than were doing so before the ban. That is an example of a bad piece of legislation.
Mr. Betts: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr. Robertson: Do not take me too far from this issue.
Mr. Betts: Does the hon. Gentleman understand that the arguments about how difficult it would be to prove the real reasons why someone was being refused a room in a hotel were used in exactly the same way in respect of race when the race discrimination laws were brought in? We heard the arguments that those laws could not be enforced because things could never be proved. We still introduced those laws because it was right to do so, and it is right to bring in these regulations for the same reasons.
Mr. Robertson: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point and I have no doubt that if he is able to catch your eye, Mr. Williams, he will expand upon it.
We ought to consider whether we want to introduce legislation that could give rise to many vexatious litigants. We must also consider the question of freedom of speech, which I am sure the Minister will address. Can a minister of religion say that homosexuality is a sin? We have heard that the Bible could be read as saying that homosexuality is sinful or as saying that it is not. When I have the argument about women priests with some of my friends in the Church of England, some say that the Bible says one thing while others say that it says another. I accept that argument. However, some people believe in a certain point of view, so will it be an offence for a minister of religion, either in a church or outside it, to condemn homosexuality as sinful? Even more importantly, will it be legal for a layman to stand up outside this place or a church, or on the street corner, and say that he also believes that homosexuality is sinful? At what point does such an action become harassment? That is my question.
Dr. Harris: The obvious question that the hon. Gentleman must ask is: what goods, services and facilities is that man on the corner providing? Similarly, what goods and services is a minister providing to the general public in the ministerial work that is done when speaking from doctrine in a church that is not covered by the exemption? The answer is none; therefore it is not covered.
Mr. Robertson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and would be glad if the Minister would confirm that. I am posing that as a question; indeed, there are three question marks against that paragraph in my notes.
I am concerned about the general drift away from the right to freedom of speech. I do not think that it is very clever to offend anyone by what one says, but a short while ago I surprised several of my colleagues by writing to the Standards Board for England in defence of Ken Livingstone. I thought that what he said to the journalist was extremely offensive, which is typical of Mr. Livingstone, who uses political correctness as a shield when it suits him. I despise everything that he stands for and think that the sooner we kick him out of office the better. [Hon. Members: “You’re not improving your chances.”] Perhaps it depends on who our candidate is.
To ban Mr. Livingstone from office for his comments was very wrong. Even though I cannot stand what he stands for, I wrote to the board and went public on that because it was a curtailment of his freedom of speech and was wrong. His words were offensive, and I hope that I would not have used such words myself, but making such comments should not be illegal.
I have more examples of the drift away from the right to freedom of speech. There were the famous incidents of the man at the Labour party conference and the woman who read out the names of people who were killed in Iraq. There was also a case in which two orders were served against a man in Lincolnshire who had a trade stand. He was served with fixed penalty notices for selling T-shirts that said—forgive my language; it is a matter of record—“Bollocks to Blair”. That drift away from freedom of speech is one of my concerns about the regulations.
I am also concerned by the drift towards the concept that people are not all equal before the law. These days, we see police signs about homophobic assaults. I condemn any such assault because it is an assault—not because it is a homophobic. In my opinion, a homophobic assault is no better or worse than any other assault because it is wrong to carry out any assault. We should all be treated equally under the law.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that it is equally wrong to assault anyone, whatever the motivation. Does he recognise, however, that when someone becomes a victim because they are part of a group—because of their race or sexual orientation, for example—all the people who share that characteristic become terrorised by the fact that they are more likely to be victimised following such an attack?
Mr. Robertson: The hon. Lady probably has a point—[Interruption.] Let me explain what I mean. There are some very stupid men: there was one in Ipswich who went around killing women. Obviously he has something against women, but it would be wrong to put up a sign saying that there was a woman-hating assault or murder because the crime is the evil thing. The motivation is also evil, but what I am trying to explain rather inadequately—[Hon. Members: “Yes, you are.”] Well, we will see what contributions are made on the Labour side.
The Chairman: Order. May we return to the subject of the debate?
Mr. Robertson: Thank you for getting me out of a hole, Mr. Williams.
These are my objections to the regulations: this is not a matter in which Parliament should be involved; it places a further burden on small businesses; it could be largely unenforceable; and it has the potential to constrain freedom of speech. The Committee will be delighted to hear that I have some other objections that I want to run through, which are partly to do with inconsistencies and partly to do with the details of the regulations.
In an intervention on the hon. Member for Wallasey I asked why religious organisations are left out. Is it because the Government recognise that, to some people, the regulations are offensive? Obviously, they must recognise that. They are not only offensive to religious people, but to people who are not particularly religious—or is offending them not important? For example, guest house proprietors may be offended by being forced to allocate a room to a homosexual couple. However, why are small guest houses excluded from the measure?
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. David Hanson): They are not.
Mr. Robertson: I am corrected by the Minister from a sedentary position. Lodgings and small rooms are excluded when the owner lives on the premises. The owner often lives on the premises in a guest house, so I do not know how far off the mark I was in my analysis. Why is it the case that a house of that size is excluded and a bigger house is not? Is it that in the bigger house people will not be inconvenienced by the regulations or is it that those people will not be offended by them? How can that be the case? As the hon. Member for Wallasey said, the exclusions for this should be drawn rather narrower than they are. I understand her point. I would rather not have the regulations because we will get into the kind of mess I have described. Why should some guest houses, small or large, be treated differently? I simply do not understand the logic of that.
Dr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman’s argument is flawed on several points and I suspect I will have to respond again in a contribution rather than in an intervention. If he reads the regulations, the exclusion is to residential accommodation in the form of lodgings where people presumably live for a long time and effectively become part of someone’s family. That gains respect for private life in human rights terms and is different from running a commercial guest house where people are in and out all the time and a commercial service is provided, not just lodgings. It is different and that is one of the areas where he is wrong.
Mr. Robertson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but I do not think that that is the point. The point is that the exclusion assumes that certain groups of people will be offended and certain groups will not. He disagrees.
Dr. Harris rose—
Mr. Robertson: No, I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I do not agree. To further my argument, why are private members’ clubs exempted if they have fewer than 25 members? There is a complete inconsistency in that. What principle is underpinning the regulations? They appear to be on shifting sand.
Mr. Simon: Could the hon. Gentleman be clear; is he saying that if there were no exemptions to the regulations, he would wholeheartedly support them? I do not think we should have any exemptions. If the provision is right, it should apply to everyone.
Mr. Robertson: For some of the reasons I have given, I would not be prepared to support that. Before the hon. Gentleman gets too smug, let me point out that if we turn this around, he is supporting regulations that will allow discrimination by certain people. Is he happy with that? He should certainly think about it. Maybe he should have gone to the Minister before and said, “I am sorry. I am not happy with these regulations”. Maybe the hon. Member for Wallasey should also have done that. They are not happy with the regulations for the reasons that they have given.
Angela Eagle: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way especially as he just implied that I should have done something that I have not. The doctrinal exclusion is entirely reasonable in the circumstances to establish the right balance. Clearly, over and above a doctrinal exclusion, I am not in favour of exclusions, but the issue that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon raised is that there is a material difference between commercial hotel rooms and lodging houses. That is a pragmatic, sensible and moderate way of going about things and fully reflects the way the Government have approached this difficult issue and I commend them.
Mr. Robertson: I accept what the hon. Lady says. There are different opinions in the Committee, but what will come across is that the regulations are not really satisfactory to anybody. That may be the result of a classical political fudge or compromise, but they have too many flaws, inconsistencies and philosophical problems for me to support them.
Mr. Burrowes: My hon. Friend raises the matter of inconsistencies. There has been in the debate, at least from some, recognition that there is a doctrinal exception. Is he concerned that it is not easy to determine the meaning of that? The example was given of a Christian bookshop, selling Bibles and other books outlining a Christian view of same-sex relationships. The presence of such a shop could be cited as
“creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”
in the provision of goods and services for anyone in a practising gay relationship. Is the problem not so much discrimination as the fact that protection for religious organisations is not guaranteed because of the harassment provision?
I have spoken for long enough, Mr. Williams, and taken several interventions. I would like to have said a lot more. I spent a long time last night and this morning going through the regulations and highlighted many points that I wanted to question, but I know that many other hon. Members wish to contribute. I shall therefore not detain the Committee any longer except to say that, having given the regulations a huge amount of thought, I cannot support them for the reasons that I have given.
3.22 pm
Mr. Betts: I am deeply disappointed by the speech given by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury. To support the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey, if the word “race” were in the regulations instead of “sexual orientation”, there would be no argument about whether we should agree to them. That argument has been won. In the 1960s, we would have had that debate and there would have been people in Parliament who argued strongly against such legislation.
Mr. Robertson: I am sorry to entertain the Committee again so soon. As I said in my speech, I am comfortable with anybody’s sexuality, but it is a private matter for them. [ Interruption. ] I am making the point that I believe in, not the one that the hon. Member for Wallasey believes in. She has made her point. It is a personal, private matter that should be kept to that person exclusively.
Mr. Betts: I would argue that it is not a private matter if someone goes into a hotel and is refused accommodation because of their sexual orientation. I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman, and he has mentioned freedom of speech. The argument that people have the right to say what they believe was also used against legislation on race discrimination, as was his argument that people have a right to decide to whom they provide goods and services. People find language such as “No Blacks here” offensive, and for that reason such language has been outlawed. I find the idea of a sign saying “No Gays here” offensive, and it should also be outlawed. That is not a private matter, it is very public. Nobody should be allowed to indicate that they are not prepared to provide goods and services on the ground of sexual orientation.
The hon. Gentleman’s argument was that the regulations will be difficult to enforce, with problems here and exemptions there. [Interruption.] I am willing to listen to arguments that exemptions have gone too far, and if the hon. Gentleman wanted to say that some of them should be removed, it would be a practical point to make. If he came forward with constructive proposals to better frame the legislation so that it would be more enforceable, I would be prepared to listen to him, but it seems that he is hiding behind such arguments. In the end, as far as I am concerned—I hope that he will accept this point when he considers the issue—if it is right in principle that people in this country should not be discriminated against on the grounds of sexual orientation, then it is right in principle that we should find a way to ensure that it is applied and practised through the legislation.
3.25 pm
Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Williams, in an important debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Upper Bann on causing the debate to happen. It is important that we have a debate on controversial issues, so that when we reach a conclusion everyone can be said to have had their say.
A great deal of emotion surrounds the introduction of the regulations. I am sorry to say that much of what has been said has been exaggerated, and some of it has been downright inaccurate. I shall deal with assertions made by bodies such as the Lawyers Christian Fellowship. Some people get emotional about the practice of homosexuality, but homosexuality, in the words of Lord Tebbit in another place, is about being, just as being black is about being. It is what someone is, not what they believe. One can choose one’s beliefs, but not what one is. People cannot choose their sexual orientation, despite the opinion of the hon. Member for Upper Bann. I think that I would prefer to take the opinion of the hon. Member for Wallasey, who has a long and distinguished track record of campaigning on these issues.
I shall attempt this afternoon to bring the argument to a more considered level and, I hope, to throw a little more light than heat on the regulations. Aspects of the regulations give me and my Liberal Democrat colleagues grave concerns. This afternoon, we have just two options: we cannot amend the regulations, so we must swallow them lock, stock and barrel or we must spit them out. However, that is not to say that there should not be a balance between freedom of religion, which is a vital freedom, freedom of speech and the right to equal treatment without discrimination.
Lesbian, gay and bisexual people are discriminated against in all aspects of their lives. When a commercial service is offered to the public, the Liberal Democrats believe that it is right that those people should not suffer the inconvenience and hassle, not to mention the humiliation and distress, of refusal on the grounds of sexual orientation.
Let us start with some facts. The regulations apply to lesbian, gay and bisexual people. They do not cover transgendered people, which we feel is a serious omission. Transgendered people suffer the same discrimination as lesbian, homosexual and bisexual people. I urge the Government to consider rectifying that omission when the English regulations are debated before their introduction in April.
In general, the regulations prevent discrimination in access to goods, services and education, although they do not apply to the curriculum and public authorities. Let us talk about education for a moment. Regulation 9 prohibits discrimination in the admission and treatment of pupils in schools, universities and colleges of education, which includes access to services and facilities, once they are admitted. However, contrary to concerns raised by some religious groups, the regulations do not cover the curriculum or how it is delivered. The assertion that schools will have to promote homosexuality in their teaching is totally inaccurate. Schools will not be free to discriminate in their admissions, and their procedures will not be able to discriminate against children or their parents on grounds of sexual orientation.
The religious exemptions do not apply to commercial businesses or organisations that offer services to the public. This means—the following example is used frequently—that a printing shop will not be allowed to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation. However, it could refuse to print leaflets that promote homosexual activity, if it also refuses to print leaflets promoting extra-marital heterosexual sex. That explanation came in answer to Lord Lester’s question. Furthermore, a printing shop cannot refuse a printing job for a person who is black or from another religious persuasion or for a Muslim or Jewish event. That is already enshrined in the Equality Act 2006.
It is unlawful for a lodging house to refuse a room to a couple on the grounds of sexual orientation, unless it has six rooms or fewer. If a bed and breakfast or hotel has a policy of refusing rooms to all unmarried couples, whether heterosexual or homosexual, it would be unlawful under the regulations, as it would discrimination on grounds of marital status rather than sexual orientation. Again, those points appeared in written answers to Lord Lester. However, how might one enforce that? In another place, Baroness Blood has remarked that she has often shared a hotel room with female friends, as indeed have I—not with the noble Baroness, but with my own girlfriends. Will it be necessary to complete a questionnaire before being allowed a room? Might I be refused entry as a dodgy-looking character who may have lesbian tendencies? Frankly, the whole thing is farcical.
Religious organisations, but not religious individuals, which let out church halls and any other buildings that they own, can discriminate. Therefore, to say that a Church would be forced to let out a hall for a gay civil partnership signing celebration is simply wrong.
The Lawyers Christian Fellowship has asserted that the regulations violate article 9 of the European convention on human rights, from which it has quoted the following passage:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”
However, it has neglected to mention that the article goes on to state:
“Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
On its interpretation of article 9, a racist would have the freedom to discriminate in the provision of goods and services.
One area on which the Lawyers Christian Fellowship would do well to concentrate is the inclusion of harassment in these regulations. The Liberal Democrats are open to the idea of harassment provision, but we are worried by its form in these regulations, especially the process by which the Government have included it. The consultation paper expressly stated that a harassment offence would not be included and that the Government would wait for the discrimination law review to report. Therefore, the measure has been included without consultation.
The practical limitations in this area are such that someone could be prosecuted for expressing the opinion that homosexuality is wrong. Even if there were no conviction, or even no prosecution, due to a test of reasonableness, a false expectation or culture of potential wrongdoing would have been created by a vague and broad definition of harassment.
Mr. Hanson: May I help the hon. Lady with her point about consultation? The harassment provisions were included following the consultation, because we received representations in favour of including them in the final document. They came from the consultation.
Lorely Burt: I thank the Minister for that illumination.
Angela Eagle: I thank the hon. Lady for having the grace to allow me to intervene so soon after allowing the Minister to give his explanation.
On the issue of harassment, does she agree that the racial harassment laws, which have been in force for30 years, still seem to allow the British National party to operate and to hold its views on race? The reasonableness provision means that there is nothing really to worry about in connection with the harassment rules.
Lorely Burt: I am not a lawyer or an expert, and, as I have said, we are not against a harassment provision, but I have been told that the definition is very broad and leaves us open to the possibility that freedom of expression may be curtailed.
Angela Eagle: I thank the hon. Lady for giving way; I think, Mr. Williams, that there are benefits in being able to discuss these matters and deal with the regulations in this way.
Is the hon. Lady not made more content by the reasonableness provisions relating to harassment, which mean that if someone brought a case, it would not get far if the court did not judge it to be reasonable to take the view that harassment had taken place? The courts have shown over the years that they take a pretty moderate view, and that they will not allow vexatious or weak harassment allegations to get far.
Lorely Burt: I am grateful for that thoughtful intervention. My first point is that if we had a better and tighter definition of harassment, it would not be necessary to put people through the upset and anxiety of going to court in the first place. Secondly, why not allow the discrimination law review to report before we pass the regulations? If the matters are covered elsewhere, why do we need to take emergency action to include the harassment provisions in the regulations before the Committee?
Liberal Democrats believe in equal rights for everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, but we also believe in freedom of speech, regardless of whether we agree with what is said. Voltaire is famous for saying that while not agreeing with what another said, he would defend to the death their right to say it. Freedom of speech is a precious and fundamental human right.
Mr. Simon: Just to be clear, do the Liberal Democrats believe that anyone should be allowed to say anything in any circumstances? Surely that is what the hon. Lady has said.
Lorely Burt: No; that is not what I have said. I have said that the Liberal Democrats support freedom of speech regardless of whether we agree with what people are saying.
Mr. Simon: Within limits.
Lorely Burt: Yes, within limits. We should like the harassment rules to be withdrawn now and given closer consideration in the discrimination law review, where the matter is already under consideration.
Polls indicate that the regulations are supported by the vast majority of Christians who practise their religion in a way that is inclusive rather than exclusive. I cannot speak for other groups, because we have not been approached by any other religious groups. The Liberal Democrats have reservations about some aspects of the regulations, with respect to the breadth of the exemptions and the inclusion of a broad harassment provision.
Mr. Burrowes: I concur with the hon. Lady’s concerns about the harassment provisions. Does she agree that Christian organisations that might not have contacted her are most concerned about religious liberty? For example, let us say that a practising homosexual is denied Church membership, and associated activities such as a crèche and Church group, or the provision of other goods and services within a Church school that come within the ambit of the regulations. Even if the membership provided its orthodox theological justification for the denial of membership, the aggrieved person could claim harassment under the provisions in the regulations on the grounds that their dignity had been violated orthat an “intimidating”, “humiliating” or “offensive environment” had been created. The regulations do not provide protection against that.
Lorely Burt: If the hon. Gentleman will be patient, my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon will deal with that more accurately than I can.
Lady Hermon: I am most gracious to the hon. Lady for taking a second intervention so quickly after the first.
The Liberal Democrats’ sister party in Northern Ireland is the Alliance party. Will the hon. Lady tell me, for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland, whether the Liberal Democrats support devolution? Do they recognise that equivalent regulations will be introduced in Great Britain in April? That is one month after the restoration of the Assembly at Stormont. Does she have a view on devolution and what the Assembly will be expected to do?
Lorely Burt: It is regrettable that the introduction of the regulations in England has been delayed until April. The haste with which they are being introduced is unfortunate.
In conclusion, we believe that the regulations are welcome. They are a long overdue measure to tackle discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in Northern Ireland.
3.42 pm
Jeremy Corbyn: I shall be brief because other hon. Members wish to speak in this extremely important debate. We have heard some extraordinary contributions from Opposition Members, the like of which I have not heard in this place for a very long time.
In essence, some hon. Members have said that it is okay to practice bigotry against people of a different sexual orientation. The hon. Member for Upper Bann has said that the erection of a sign above a guest house saying, “Gays may not come here,” would not be covered. That sort of humiliation is precisely what will be covered. Bigotry is being dressed up as freedom of speech. We live in a society in which one hopes that such bigotry, discrimination, homophobia, gay-bashing and so on have been left well behind.
My only disappointment is that the regulations do not cover the whole of the United Kingdom. I hope that the regulations are passed into law in Northern Ireland and that they will apply to the rest of the UK as soon as possible, so that those who wish to provide goods and services will be prevented from actively discriminating against individuals.
Before I or any other hon. Member was in this House, the then Labour Government introduced the Race Relations Act 1965, and exactly the same arguments were made. It was said that we could not legislate to end racism, bigotry or to stop such practices. Obviously, racism did not end in 1965, any more than it has ended now, but it created a very important political benchmark—our society said, “Racism is out”. It gave space to people to campaign and it isolated racists.
Think of the implications if we do not pass these regulations. What message will that send? That it is okay to discriminate against people because they are gay; that it is okay to put up signs to prevent them from accessing services, and that it is okay to be beastly towards them, because they do not follow some rather strange readings of some parts of the Bible.
The hon. Member for Upper Bann claims that there is some kind of Christian perfection behind his arguments. I do not have strong religious beliefs myself, but I talk to people of different religious faiths in my community—every religious faith is represented in inner London—and they all tell me that the teachings of the Bible, as they understand them, are of tolerance, understanding, compassion and co-existence in society. I do not understand why the hon. Gentleman should claim any particular perfection for his reading of the Bible.
We have a duty to pass the regulations into law and to send out a message that we will put behind us the days of violence against homosexual people. We wish to live in a tolerant society and a tolerant world. I do not think that there should be any exemptions. I hope that the exemptions that unfortunately are included in the regulations will eventually disappear and that an amendment will be made or that a legal action will take place to ensure that they disappear altogether, in accordance with the European convention on human rights.
Those who are opposing the regulations—I findthe position of the Conservative party absolutely extraordinary—are playing up to an audience of discrimination and bigotry and a nasty, divided, unpleasant society. Those people who support the regulations in Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England do not want to see such a society. They want us to pass the regulations into law to make a declaration of the decent, equal society in which we all want to live.
3.47 pm
Lady Hermon: I am glad to have this opportunity to speak about these controversial regulations, which are being introduced in the space of two and a half hours. They are unamendable and will be imposed on1.7 million people in Northern Ireland, whether they like it or not. I object to the manner in which we are legislating for the people of Northern Ireland.
I shall preface my remarks by saying that I believe passionately in equality; I believe that we are all equal in the sight of God, and I loathe and detest all forms of discrimination. I believe passionately in the freedom of thought, conscience and religion, which is guaranteed by the European convention on human rights. I amon the record as often having complimented the Government on making the convention part and parcel of domestic legislation.
Jeremy Corbyn: If the Northern Ireland Assembly were in Session—there are no guarantees as to when it will come back into operation—would the hon. Lady support the approval of the regulations as presented to the Assembly?
Lady Hermon: Believe it or not, I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am one of the few Northern Ireland representatives in this House. We have 18 Members of Parliament, five of whom are Sinn Fein Members, who, as the hon. Gentleman will know, do not take their seats in this House to represent their constituents as they should. Of those 18 MPs, there are only two of us who are not holding a dual mandate and doubling up as Members of the Assembly. I and the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) are the only Northern Ireland MPs not to hold a seat in the Assembly. I will therefore not predict what 108 Assembly Members will do, but I will defend the Belfast agreement, which this Government introduced after the Good Friday agreement. I am one of the few Ulster Unionists who remain pro-agreement. We are an endangered species, as reflected by the fact that I am the only one returned to this House.
Let me remind the Government what they legislated for when they put the Belfast agreement on the statute book. For the benefit of Labour Members, let me read—
The Chairman: Order. I should remind the hon. Lady that the subject of the debate is the regulations, not the agreement.
Lady Hermon: Absolutely, Mr. Williams. I take your point entirely. I simply want to remind hon. Members of the situation before us. The procedure under which the regulations are being taken through means that they are completely unamendable.
Mr. Hanson rose—
Lady Hermon: If I could just finish, the Minister will have an opportunity to intervene. I will give way in a moment or two.
The Minister will be well aware of the Government’s valiant efforts to ensure that devolution is restoredin Northern Ireland. An election is scheduled for7 March, with a view to restoring the Assembly and having it sit again on 26 March. We are within weeks of having a restored devolved Parliament at Stormont.
I wish to quote only one part of the Belfast agreement, Mr. Williams. Thousands of people in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland voted for the agreement and for an Assembly that
“will exercise full legislative and executive authority”.
That is what I voted for—I did not vote for a Mickey Mouse outfit that would vote and legislate on the bits that this House had left over for it to consider.
Mr. Hanson: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for allowing me to intervene, given that I have an opportunity to speak later. She will be aware that the Assembly considered a motion in the name of the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) to annul the regulations, but that motion was not carried.
Lady Hermon: I am most grateful to the Minister for that enlightening intervention. As we know from the hon. Member for Tewkesbury and the hon. Members who speak for the Liberal Democrats, the Assembly is a debating chamber and does not operate with full legislative and Executive authority.
Mr. Hanson: If the Assembly had supported the non-carrying of the regulations, that would have put me in an even more difficult position than today’s debate. However, it did not carry the motion in the name of the hon. Member for Lagan Valley, so it did not wish to have the regulation that the hon. Member for Upper Bann has put forward today.
Lady Hermon: I am sorry, but I have to say that that is as clear as mud. Perhaps other members of the Committee understood the Minister’s interpretation of the Assembly’s motion.
Mr. Hanson: The hon. Member for Lagan Valley put the motion in the Assembly to annul the regulations, but the Assembly did not carry that motion. Therefore, it has not indicated to me, as the Minister, that it wished the proposal in the name of the hon. Member for Upper Bann to be carried today. The Assembly considered the motion, voted on it and did not carry it.
Lady Hermon: I am most grateful to the Ministerfor clarifying his earlier intervention. However, I understand that some Assembly Members were not present, although that is not the point. The point is that this House passed legislation to bring the Belfast agreement into effect and voted to allow the Assembly to have full Executive and legislative powers. We are within weeks of restoring devolution in Northern Ireland. At the same time—I have not invented this—we have the code of practice on consultation on all documents, which was issued by the Cabinet Office. In the foreword, the Prime Minister says:
“Effective consultation is a key part of the policy-making process...I encourage all departments and relevant public bodies to use it effectively.”
With your indulgence, Mr. Williams, I will just quote paragraph 1.4 of the code of the practice, which is intended for all Departments, including the Northern Ireland Office. It states:
“This written consultation period should be a minimumof 12 weeks. Departments should consider the specific circumstances of their stakeholders and consider longer consultation periods at certain times, for example during the summer holiday period...Where a consultation takes place over a holiday period or lasts less than 12 weeks, extra effort should be made to ensure that the consultation is still effective, by supplementing the written exercise with other methods of consultation.”
I have not invented the words written by the Cabinet Office and printed in its “Code of Practice on Consultation”. They have come from the Government who directed all Ministers, including those who hold jobs with important responsibilities in the Northern Ireland Office, to consult for at least 12 weeks. Furthermore, when a period of consultation overlapped with the holiday period, they were to directed to make “extra effort” to ensure that consultation was still effective.
The document was issued for consultation on29 July. The Minister has been in the Northern Ireland Office long enough to know that July is a particular busy holiday month, as is August. It overlaps with the holiday period. The reply to the consultation was demanded by 25 September, so consultation on the regulations was curtailed to a mere eight weeks. That point was made in another place in an earlier debate on 9 January 2007. It is, as the hon. Member for Tewkesbury alluded to, the subject of judicial review and I shall not pursue the issue. The serious matter of consultation as directed by the Cabinet Office’s code of practice was not followed through properly by the Northern Ireland Office.
“are subject to negative resolution procedure at Westminster and do not amend primary legislation, no statement is required.
I was surprised to find such wording in an explanatory memorandum, as I was surprised to find that the Minister does not have the confidence of his own procedures and consultation. He should be courageous enough to publish a statement in the regulations to imply clearly that he believes the regulations are compatible with the European convention on human rights. Will he explain why that has not been done?
Mr. Robertson: The hon. Lady has touched on an important point. As she said, the reason that such wording is not contained in the regulations is that it was included in the original Bill that gave rise to the regulations. However, the details of the regulations were not in the Bill, so we do not know whether or not they are compatible.
Lady Hermon: I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury. He is absolutely correct. The Minister will have an opportunity when he winds up the debate to say that he is confident that the regulations are compatible with the European convention on human rights. I should just like him to explain why that statement is not carried on the front of regulations.
I object to the lack of consultation. I object in particular to the fact that we are taking such measures through by means of regulations that are not amendable and will be debated simply in two and a half hours in the House, after which time they will be imposed on the people of Northern Ireland. I am confident that, despite the overtures from the hon. Member for Upper Bann on Radio Ulster and elsewhere that a government should go ahead without Sinn Fein, his party will sit with Sinn Fein in an inclusive government by 26 March. That is what I hope. I am sure that this Government will not go ahead without Sinn Fein.
Will the Minister explain why he has driven through the regulations at such breakneck speed, particularly when he knows very well that the equivalent regulations have been delayed and will be introduced to the rest of the United Kingdom only in April?
The Belfast agreement established two important statutory bodies in Northern Ireland: the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland. Under the extensive regulations before us, an enormous chunk is dedicated to increasing the powers of the Equality Commission, so that for example, under regulation 28:
“The Commission may give financial or other assistance to any organisation appearing to the Commission to be concerned with the promotion of equality of opportunity between persons of different sexual orientations.”
That is absolutely fine, but will the Minister explain whether the commission’s budget will increase? It is already overstretched by the commission’s other work on equality of opportunity in Northern Ireland.
Under regulation 30, the commission may appoint a full-time or part-time additional commissioner for the purpose of investigating complaints of discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation. Will the Minister confirm that the commission has equal powers, as hon. Members have mentioned, on racial discrimination, which I loathe and detest with every fibre of my body?
In Northern Ireland we welcome people from Poland and other parts of the world. They take jobs that other people do not want and they have made a valuable contribution to the community. In my constituency, there is a large ethnic Chinese community, which came to Northern Ireland doing the bloody and awful years of the troubles. They remained loyal to Northern Ireland through all the mayhem.
The hate crime figures show an increase in attackson people from ethnic communities—on people of a different colour. Will the Minister assure me that when a person feels that racial or sexual discrimination has taken place, the Equality Commission will divert financial resources to help them, and that it willalso appoint additional commissioners to investigate complaints of racial discrimination and of discrimination on any other grounds of ethnicity?
Finally, I draw the Minister’s attention to a point that I am sure other Committee members have noted. Schedules I and II on pages 28 and 29 set out draft forms: a form for a person who believes they have suffered discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, which they send to the person who challenges the belief that they effected such discrimination; and a reply form for the respondent to fill in. Is there parity for those who suffer racial discrimination, sexual discrimination or discrimination on any other grounds in Northern Ireland? It is extraordinary that people—the aggrieved person and the person against whom there is a complaint—are invited to implicate themselves in text, in the aggrieved person’s case by setting out the reasons why they feel discriminated against. The Minister could, of course, correct me. However, that route is not open to those who feel that they have been discriminated against on racial or any other grounds, and he needs to address that matter, too.
Angela Eagle: I am listening very carefully to the hon. Lady. Does she agree with me that Northern Ireland has led the way in having an anti-discrimination commission that deals with all sorts of discrimination across the piece? She appears to be arguing that including another one will be a disbenefit to the existing anti-discrimination laws. Does she agree that when someone is a racist they often have other bigoted views? They can be sexist, and certainly anti-gay. Dealing with those things in one piece does not threaten any of the strands; it strengthens all of them.
Lady Hermon: I am most grateful for the hon. Lady’s thoughtful intervention. I am sorry if my intervention when she was speaking earlier was taken as a personal concern, as it was not.
When I look at the statistics in Northern Ireland, I am worried about the rise in hate crime and the dramatic rise in homophobic attacks, particularly on young gay men. Some paramilitary organisations have a fixation on a person’s sexual orientation. That concerns grieves me. Something that worries me greatly about the unfortunate coverage of these regulations is that it may make the lives of those in Northern Ireland who have a particular sexual orientation even more difficult. That would be most regrettable.
We have a very good Northern Ireland Office Minister before us. I always give him a difficult time in Committee—he deserves a hard time—but despite that I recognise that he works extremely hard to secure a devolved Government. I wish to goodness that we had the wit to treat with sensitivity all people in Northern Ireland including the Church representatives. The recently retired primate of all Ireland, Lord Eames, expressed his concern in the other place on 9 January about the manner in which the proposal is being taken through Parliament. To say that the debate is about the denial of equality of opportunity is to give the wrong interpretation of where the Churches in Northern Ireland stand on this matter.
This sensitive proposal is being taken through the Committee in two and a half hours by a horrible procedure of which I am highly critical: an unamendable Order in Council. We cannot even correct the spelling; I am being pedantic, but “to practise” is spelt as “to practice” in the proposal. It would have been much better for all concerned—I genuinely mean all—if the issue had been left to the Assembly, which will be restored. It would have had much more cross-party support and the Churches would not have been portrayed as being against equality of opportunity for all in Northern Ireland. That is unfair to the Churches in Northern Ireland as it is not their view.
I pay tribute to the Minister and the Secretary of State for trying so valiantly to restore at Stormont a devolved institution of 108 well paid Assembly Members who should not also be sitting as Members of this House. However, that is a different issue for another day.
The Opposition parties are not going to vote with us this afternoon so we are numerically outnumbered. I wish that the Minister, even at this late stage, would have the sense to exercise his discretion, withdraw the regulations and allow full consultation instead of having another judicial review, which I expect will go against the Northern Ireland Office for not following its own procedures on consultation.
4.10 pm
Mr. Simon: It is always a pleasure to serve under your judicious chairmanship, Mr. Williams. What used to be the Conservative and Unionist party has long since sold its unionism down the river, and I should identify myself as a convinced and committed socialist Unionist. As such, I never thought that I would have to explain to the hon. Members for Upper Bann or for North Down that this is the sovereign United Kingdom Parliament, and here we legislate for the entire United Kingdom.
It is also rare for me to find myself in agreement with my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North. However, it is difficult to understand why the matters before us have been devolved to the devolved bodies that are sitting at the moment—as we know, that is not all of them. Those of us—some of us socialist Unionists—of different views, who have sat for many a long afternoon on Committees such as this legislating on Northern Ireland matters because the Northern Ireland devolved body did not sit, was not sitting, was not capable of sitting or could not agree to sit, have legislated happily, indeed, with pride and satisfaction, as the sovereign United Kingdom Parliament during those long years of tediously technical matters that appeared to concern us relatively little. It is with equal pride and delight, as members of the sovereign United Kingdom Parliament, that we now play our little role in passing on to gay, lesbian and bisexual United Kingdom citizens, who happen to live in Ulster, the right to gain goods and services without prejudice, discrimination or humiliation, just as they might in England, Scotland or Wales.
The hon. Lady suggests, very cynically it seems to me, that the Government are trying to rush the issue through the House in a statutory instrument because they do not trust the devolved body in Ulster to give the same rights to gay, lesbian and bisexual people that we in this Labour-controlled and therefore decent and liberal sovereign—
Lady Hermon: The hon. Gentleman provokes me by bringing to the Committee’s attention the fact that the Labour party is decent and honourable and all the rest of those good characteristics. When is that good, decent and honourable party going to field a candidate in Northern Ireland?
Mr. Simon: I cannot speak for the leadership of the party.
The Chairman: Order. We should return to the regulations that are the subject of the debate. The constitutional position in Northern Ireland is not a matter for us today.
Mr. Simon: Thank you, Mr. Williams, for that guidance and for bringing us back on to the straight and narrow, from which we were in danger of wandering.
I was about to say that the hon. Lady’s suggestion that the regulations have been brought before this Committee this afternoon in order to avoid a devolved body that would reject them seems to be a little at odds with what the Minister says has already been debated in that body without its powers. Secondly, all that I can say as a Member of this sovereign Parliament is that if that were the case, crafty though it might be, it would be a jolly good thing if it means that those people got the rights to which they ought, in any decent society, to be entitled.
I shall not detain the Committee for long. I will make this second point and one further one. The hon. Members for Tewkesbury and for Upper Bann have talked at great length about what they say are the tensions and difficulties in protecting the rights of some people to enjoy free speech and freedom of expression and those of others to be free from prejudice and discrimination. The reason why we are making this kind of legislation is that there are abroad people whose attitudes are prejudiced, bigoted, offensive, unfair and unreasonable. We do not legislate unless there are people abroad with those intentions.
No one suggests that we legislate to safeguard the rights of Members of Parliament to keep budgerigars, because no one is trying to prevent Members of Parliament from keeping budgerigars. The point is that the things that we have heard about do happen to the people we are discussing. That is why we are legislating and, every time we legislate on such issues, there will be people whose right to be bigoted and prejudiced will be curtailed. That is the fact of the matter.
We have heard, from Labour Members primarily, how easy it would be to replace signs saying “No homosexuals” with “No blacks” or “No women”. My constituency of Erdington is one of the most Irish constituencies in the United Kingdom. Let us be clear: if someone went to Erdington in the 1950s and 1960s, the sign would not have said just “No blacks” or “No Catholics”; it would have said “No Irish”. That is what it would have said in Erdington. Every single one of the arguments that we have heard this afternoon applied equally at that time. They applied through the 1950s and 1960s. If we give people rights, we take away the rights of other people to be prejudiced and bigoted, and that is what we are doing this afternoon.
Thirdly, I would like to echo very strongly the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe about his disappointment in what we have heard from those on the Conservative Front Bench. The hon. Member for Tewkesbury made it clear that he is a man of great decency and reasonableness, and I am sure that no Labour Members disagree strongly with his personal views on anything. That is not the point, however. He sits on the Front Bench for the Conservative party and he tells us that it is a free vote. How many touchy-feely new Tories does he have behind him? Hardly any. He has one colleague, who is not looking very touchy-feely and very new Tory on these issues at all.
It is important for this Committee, considering these important regulations, to send the message that Labour Members are here as usual in numbers and speaking because we care about these issues. These things are important to us; this is real politics; and it really matters. What we see on the Conservative side ofthe Committee is just how committed the new Conservative party is to giving rights to gays, lesbians and bisexual people.
4.18 pm
Dr. Harris: I start by thanking the Minister for taking the time to meet me earlier today, so that we could go over some of the questions about what are, as the debate has shown, sometimes quite complicated regulations. I am not an expert on drafting, so I congratulate whoever managed to draft them, because they are so complicated, but I regret that it is not always obvious what is being covered.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull said, although we have concerns that the regulations do not go far enough in some cases and that the harassment provisions perhaps go too far, on balance, we support the regulations and will vote for them this afternoon. I stress that we strongly support the anti-discrimination measures in the regulations. We recognise that lesbian, gay and bisexual people are discriminated against in many, if not all, aspects of their lives. Just like other people—they are people—they need goods and services, and where a commercial service is offered to the public, they should not suffer the inconvenience, the hassle and, above all, the humiliation and distress of refusal on the grounds of their sexual orientation; nor should they suffer victimisation as a result of complaining about that. Sexual orientation is an innate part of who we are as human beings, like race and gender. It is therefore necessary and right to seek to limit such discrimination in everyday life. That is why we support very strongly the anti-discrimination aspects of the regulations, as we did with the rules on employment, which came in three years ago.
We are also generally content—we were not particularly, and I certainly was not, with the employment regulations in certain cases—with the exemptions and their scope. The problems that we have in this respect are relatively minor. Despite concerns about the process, I applaud the Government on the way in which they have scoped the exemptions. The hon. Member for Islington, North said that he hoped that there would be no exemptions but, given the world we live in, we accept that there must be exemptions if we are to respect religious freedom. We recognise that, and think that the Government have got things broadly right. I hope that the British regulations, when they are published, will make no further concessions on those exemptions, however. We are not debating those regulations now, but I put that marker down.
As I said, we are unhappy about the extent of the harassment provisions. In that respect, the hon. Member for Upper Bann made some fair points about the consequences that might arise for freedom of expression from the drafting of the harassment provisions. That is why the provisions were removed for religion, where the case for having narrower, if any, harassment provisions is even clearer. I accept that the case is even clearer for religion, because sexual orientation is much closer to race than to religion. It was the understanding that the discrimination law review would deal with such issues, so it is unfortunate that we are debating the regulations without the benefit of that review, which is something that the women and equality unit will do well.
As my hon. Friend said, we have concerns about the timing. In a sense, it is peculiar that we are debating the regulations now, in 2007. The Labour party’s 1997 general election manifesto said that the party was committed to legislating
“to end unjustifiable discrimination wherever it exists.”
The legislative programme is crowded—with the Government introducing tuition fees, foundation hospitals and stuff like that—but back then, one would have been disappointed to think that it would take10 years to implement that manifesto. However, I am glad that that is now being done. It is sad that it is being done by secondary legislation, as we said during the passage of the Equality Act 2006, because doing so does not allow a fuller debate in which issues can be teased out and in which hon. Members can feel that they have voted on specific issues, so that they are not characterised as being opposed to all the legislation, just because they do not like something in particular.
I should like to record my thanks for the briefing and campaigning of organisations, such as Stonewall and the National Secular Society, over a long period. We also ought to mention the Lawyers Christian Fellowship. Although I do not agree with its view on the issue, it has provoked the debate that we are having, by a loud lobbying campaign. It is important to point out that the group does not represent all Christian opinion. There is moderate, mainstream—as I would call it—Christian opinion that does not support its view. Indeed, the Board of Deputies of British Jews has been at pains to correct the impression that it supports that campaign, which it says that the Lawyers Christian Fellowship has given. The board’s community issues director wrote in a letter to me:
“The Board has never supported this protest and opposes discrimination on any grounds, recognising the rights of those within our community and in wider society should not be infringed on the grounds of race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability or religious conviction. Furthermore, the Board believes that there is no Jewish group or association affiliated to this campaign.”
The board said that the Muslim Council of Britain had put out a similar statement, although I do not have that statement and am just reporting what the board said.
It is important not to characterise those of us who are in favour of equality as being against all religious opinion. It is an unusual minority, not mainstream religious opinion, that feels so strongly. Such people have a right to feel strongly, but we have a right to say that they are wrong.
Angela Eagle: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that some of the scaremongering involving these moderate and sensible regulations, such as huge media adverts making all sorts of false claims about them, is to be deplored? It does not allow a sensible debate; it is just scaremongering.
Dr. Harris: Yes, I oppose scaremongering, particularly in this matter. An atmosphere of allegations that something will be promoted and statements made about the implications for children—distasteful and insulting statements—create problems for people. This debate is not taking place in a vacuum in that respect.
We should be grateful to the Lawyers Christian Fellowship for provoking votes such as the one in the House of Lord, where the regulations were overwhelmingly supported. That shows that the House of Lords has changed on such issues. I do not think that the Conservative party has changed, but the House of Lords has.
Mr. Robertson: The Liberal party changes every day.
Dr. Harris: I do not think that the Conservative party has changed. Although it claims to support equal rights, on such a fundamental issue, there ought to be a Whip. Members could vote against the Whip, but there ought to be a line; it is not purely a conscience issue. Even if the vote is free, I cannot understand why the leader of the Conservative party did not instruct his Front-Bench spokesman to say, “On a free vote, our line is to support the measures, even on balance and after putting criticisms.” He has a right to express his personal views, but as he is a Front-Bench Member, we should record that, on such issues, the Conservative party clearly has not changed.
Mr. Robertson: The fact that we are allowed a free vote on such an issue demonstrates that the Conservative party has changed.
Dr. Harris: I will concede that it has changed from opposing equality outright to not being willing to support it, but I should like to see the Conservative party’s leader campaign on that basis when he next talks to the youth of today.
Mr. Robertson: One of the points that I made in my speech concerned what happens on a free vote. I shall give the hon. Gentleman a good example that involves an issue in which he is interested and on which he was kind enough to advise me because I agreed with him—stem cell research. The debate in Parliament involved a completely free vote. The House was full. Everyone treated everyone else courteously, listened to what other Members had to say and voted accordingly. To me, that is Parliament at its best. Does he agree?
Dr. Harris: I agree. I am not opposed to free votes per se—I wish that there were more—but on fundamental issues of discrimination, I do not think that there should be free votes and my party does not either. It is up to the hon. Gentleman’s party. I certainly agree with him on that issue; but based on what he said, we would have free votes on everything, because they are nice.
Fiona Mactaggart: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
The Chairman: Order. I will allow the intervention as long as it has to do with the regulations and not with free votes.
Fiona Mactaggart: The regulations deal with access for everyone to goods and services. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that that issue is separate from the kinds of issue properly decided by a free vote—those that are up to the conscience of the individual?
Dr. Harris: Yes, I do. I welcome the manner in which the hon. Member for Upper Bann introduced the regulation. He wished to debate, and he said that others would have their say, rather than debating with him directly, which is one way of doing it. I shall pick up on two issues that he raised, however.
The hon. Gentleman said that the regulations will force people to approve of something. They will not force anyone to approve of anything. I cannot put it any better than Lord Smith of Finsbury, a man for whom I think we all have great admiration:
“I believe very strongly that people have a right to hold views that may be bigoted and discriminatory. What I do not believe is that they have the right to put those beliefs into action in a way that affects adversely the life and livelihood of other human beings. These regulations very simply seek to prevent that.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 9 January 2007; Vol. 688,c. 183-4.]
That is perfect in its phrasing.
The regulations will not force anyone to approve of anything. There is a question about facilitation, in the sense that letting someone into a room implies that they might lie down on a bed, but anyone engaged in the commercial world should know that such things happen. The regulations will not force anyone to change their beliefs or to approve actively of something. People have to sleep somewhere, and I do not believe that whether a room has a certain wallpaper or another is particularly material.
The hon. Gentleman asked what the problem is and said that we do not need the regulations because there is no discrimination. However, he also said that the regulations would prevent people from doing things that they wanted to do, which, presumably, is to discriminate in some way. He cannot have it both ways. I believe that there is discrimination—as honorary president of the Liberal Democrat lesbian and gay equality group, I have spoken to people who have suffered from it—and that therefore the regulations are needed. I accept that they will prevent some people from doing what they would otherwise do in the commercial field of providing goods and services, and I say, “Good, they should not have been doing it.”
Dr. Harris: There are two separate issues. First, if the Church is hiring out its hall to the community—it may be the only hall in the village—and to all and sundry, even though it owns the hall, it is not permitted by the regulations to say that it will not hire it out for a gay disco if it hires it out for non-gay discos. That is right. It does not mean that the Church approves; it just means that it has to make money from all sections of the community and cannot exclude one. There is no doubt about that—I hope that the Minister will confirm that—so that is not scaremongering but simply stating what is true.
Secondly, there are problems with the harassment provision. It is written quite widely. I do not like the fact that it contains phrases such as “violating B’s dignity” in regulation 3(3)(a) or “creating an...offensive environment” in regulation 3(3)(b), because they can be wide and subjective. This is the same issue that I spoke about on the religious hatred provisions. There is no right not to be offended. I accept, however, that there should be harassment provisions to prevent the creation of an “intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating” environment.
There is scope for compromise, and that is what I thought the discrimination law review might do. There is a risk, even with the reasonableness test that has been mentioned, of an atmosphere in which someone might feel that they have a case, they might report it, someone might investigate it and someone might even prosecute it, but the court might say, “No, it is not a reasonable view to hold.” The law should narrow the offence in statute, not rely on a late-stage intervention by the court to protect freedom of speech and freedom of religion. If, in carrying out exempt activities, someone wants to explain politely—at least, not abusively—why they think that what someone wants to do is sinful, there may be the risk that the person concerned will claim that they have been harassed.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, and that is why I am concerned about the matter, but it is because we respect the human rights of people to have views and to speak—I believe that speech is different from action, and that is what my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull was saying earlier—that I am delighted that Conservative Members support the Human Rights Act 1998 and provisions like this one. Such provisions protect one’s corner, and that is why I am able to support what the hon. Gentleman has been saying in this narrow area.
I hope that the Minister will have the chance to go through the issues that have been mentioned. I hope that he will deal with the issue of lodgings, because there has been a common problem in that regard. I just want to say a word about education. There must have been a typographical error in my hon. Friend’s speech, because I recognise that the regulations cover how the curriculum is delivered in schools in Northern Ireland.
There is no exemption for the delivery of the curriculum. In terms of harassment, that rightly means that teachers will not be able to say, “You are a sinner.” It is not appropriate for a schoolteacher to tell a gay pupil or someone whose parents might be gay that being gay is sinful or unacceptable. In religious education classes, it might be appropriate for teachers to say, “These Churches teach that homosexuality is a sin”— blah, blah, blah. That is what religious education does: it sets out the various orthodoxies of various religions. I hope that it also points out that some belief structures that do not adopt such a view and that some religions are less discriminatory.
As a backstop—if guidance does not work and the head teacher does not have a grip, even in faith schools, on what teachers are doing—the provisions cover the direct proselytising of a discriminatory and harassing point of view on sexual orientation, just as they should in respect of racism. I hope that that is understood by the public, because it clearly is not understood by the Church of England.
Last summer, The Times Higher Educational Supplement, said:
“Faiths schools have demanded exemption from new equality laws in order to carry on teaching that homosexuality is a sin...The Association of Christian Teachers said that ‘faith schools should be free to decide what is taught and how it is taught in line with the faith-basis of that school’”.
It is not the job of schools to teach people that something is sinful. Their job is to teach maths, physics, chemistry and so on—even religious education, although I do not think that the subject should be compulsory.
When schools teach religious education, they should set out what some Church authorities say. It is not the job of a state-funded school, faith or otherwise, to be saying that something is sinful. I welcome the fact that the regulations are wide enough to make that clear to schools in Northern Ireland, if necessary. I hope, although I am not hugely hopeful, that the GB regulations do exactly the same.
The Lawyers Christian Fellowship complains that there is
“no protection in the Northern Ireland SORs guaranteeing teachers in faith schools the right to teach that marriage is preferable to a homosexual civil partnership”.
I am pleased about that situation, because I cannot believe that anyone wants to say to gay people that they should have a sham heterosexual marriage rather than enter into a civil partnership, as they are entitled to do.
The debate has shown how much bigotry still exists among some sections of religious belief and that it is alive and well in such faith schools. I do not have a particular view about schools having a faith ethos—neither does my party—but we must ensure that they are not used as an excuse to harass pupils on the basis of their sexual orientation.
Mr. Burrowes: Is there not a conspicuous difference with parallel legislation dealing with religion, the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998, which specifically exempts the school curriculum from its religious rights provisions? There is a conspicuous inconsistency in the regulations.
Dr. Harris: I have not seen the regulations that the hon. Gentleman mentions, but I am prepared to believe that the Government’s policy on faith schools is,to a certain extent, a mass of inconsistencies and irrationalities. I do not mean to criticise the Minister in my final remarks today, because, like my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull, I welcome the regulations. I hope that the Minister will consider narrowing the harassment provisions at a later stage, especially when the discrimination law review reports and the GB regulations take that on board.
4.40 pm
Mr. Hanson: I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Williams. This has been an interesting and productive debate, and I thank hon. Members on both sides of the Committee for the reasonable way in which they have put their arguments, given that we are dealing with matters of fundamental principle and that there is a fundamental divide.
I thank the hon. Member for Upper Bann for the reasonable way in which he presented his arguments, although I disagree fundamentally with his approach. I am grateful for the support of my hon. Friends the Members for Wallasey, for Sheffield, Attercliffe, for Birmingham, Erdington and for Islington, North, who have put more eloquently than I might be able to the case for why the Committee should support the regulations.
I make no apologies for introducing the regulations, supported by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. It is the right thing to do in 2007, and it is the moral and appropriate thing to do to ensure that we have an inclusive, open and tolerant society. We are discussing equality before the law in the provision of goods and services, and I certainly do not wish to tolerate a society in which people can be discriminated against on the ground of their sexuality or sexual orientation. I recognise that there is a fundamental chasm or divide between members of the Committee in certain areas, but I will take my stand and other hon. Members will take their stands, which is the nature of democracy today.
The regulations will help us to move towards a tolerant, open and inclusive society in which the rights of gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals in the community are respected under the law. Individuals who fundamentally object to the lifestyle that people lead—not through choice, but because of what they are—are entitled to keep those objections and views, but we have drawn a line in the sand on those points in relation to the provision of goods and services.
Lorely Burt: I hope that the Minister will comment on transgender people in his reply, because I asked specifically about them.
Mr. Hanson: I shall come to that issue at an appropriate point in my speech. I have the hon. Lady’s points in front of me.
My hon. Friends gave an eloquent historical analysis of race relations legislation. Even though there is racism in society today—there are people who vote for the British National party, people who will stand for that party and people who will propagate racist views—the key thing that our Government and previous Governments have done is to draw a line in the sand that says, “This is where we stand, and this is what we believe is tolerable in society in terms of people’s attitudes and approaches to discrimination provisions, as opposed to attitudes of belief.”
The hon. Member for Solihull said, “You cannot change what you are,” and I take that point. Discrimination against people for what they are is not tolerable.
Lady Hermon: Will the Minister confirm that if the line in the sand is drawn differently in the regulations in Great Britain in April, equivalent amendments will be made to the Northern Ireland regulations?
Mr. Hanson: We in government will certainly reflect on what colleagues in other Departments do. I hope that I will soon be spending my last days as a Minister dealing with devolved matters in Northern Ireland. I hope that we will dissolve the Assembly on 30 January, have an election and elect a local devolved Administration, in which case these matters will no longer be my responsibility. Any such Administration would, in due course, consider the issues of consultation and introduction that the hon. Lady has raised.
Before I go on to the main bulk of my comments, I shall address an important point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North. This is not just about legislation, it is about ultimately changing the culture of our society to have that tolerance. We will lead the way in having a society that is tolerant to people who are gay or lesbian.
It is important to say what the regulations will not do. They will not stop freedom of speech. People are allowed to say what they will about individuals in the community at large, and that is not going to change. People will not stop believing what they believe, whether or not we change the regulations. We might change the culture for future generations, but what individuals believe is a matter for them.
The regulations will have no impact on the curriculum in schools in Northern Ireland or lead to the promotion of homosexuality as a lifestyle choice. They will not lead to the banning of Bibles in hotel rooms or attack the religious ethos, teaching, practice or regulation of accepted Christian organisations. They will certainly not mean that Christian bookshops promoting marriage will find themselves being successfully sued for creating a intimidating, hostile, humiliating, degrading or offensive environment.
Turning to what the hon. Member for Upper Bann has said, there has been and is discrimination, and unless we take action today for Northern Ireland, and on other days for the rest of the UK, there will continue to be discrimination. That is why we have proposed the regulations.
David Simpson: On the Minister’s point about freedom of speech, may I take it that if a minister of the gospel, because of his religious beliefs, were to say from his pulpit that homosexuality is wrong, he would be protected under the exemptions?
Mr. Hanson: Absolutely, and I hope that that clarifies the point for the hon. Gentleman.
In the 12 minutes or so that I have left, I wish to cover four areas, namely the method of consultation and the introduction of the regulations, harassment issues, enforceability and matters raised by hon. Members. On the method of introduction, the hon. Member for North Down and I have this joust regularly in relation to Orders in Council. I agree with her that Orders in Council are an unsatisfactory way to legislate for Northern Ireland. She knows that I know that, and I have told her on many occasions that this is not the way to do it. I hope that the Assembly will be back in due course, and I assure her that if an Executive is in place by 26 March after an election on7 March, the Assembly will be able, not by cross-community vote but by majority vote, to throw out the regulations, if it so wishes. It could also amend them or do what it wished within its competence. Once the Assembly is in place, it will have competence on such matters.
Mr. Simon: Does the Minister agree that when we spent years passing the Northern Ireland turn the taps off order and the Northern Ireland turn the lights off order over and over again, we did not have a barrage of Northern Ireland Members telling us that we should not be legislating and that it was absolutely out of the question? When they get their Assembly back then great, they can legislate, but for the moment this is our Parliament and we are legislating. They should be joining in.
Mr. Hanson: I accept that we have competence, and as a Minister under direct rule, I have competence in such matters because the Assembly is not sitting. I want it to sit, and it should be in place and have responsibility. I repeat to the hon. Member for North Down and other hon. Members, and to those in Northern Ireland who oppose the regulations, the points that I made in an intervention on her. Do not hold out hope that the Assembly will overturn the regulations. In a vote in the Assembly on 11 December, the motion to annul the regulations, made by the hon. Member for Lagan Valley, who is not present today, was defeated. Admittedly the vote was close, but the motion was defeated and the Assembly supported the introduction of the regulations.
The hon. Member for North Down and others mentioned consultation. I admit that it was short, and the issue is currently under judicial review and I cannot comment on it in detail. I say to her and the Committee that I issued the regulations for consultation at the end of July. I wrote to the leader of each party to ask them to meet me in September to discuss the regulations. Nobody took up that invitation. We had 370-odd responses to the consultation, compared with many thousands in Great Britain. We assessed them and, on the back of the consultation, we took steps to include details on harassment. Including those received since the end of the consultation, I have received fewer than 700 pieces of correspondence on the regulations, and the majority have come from people outside Northern Ireland who have used these regulations as a way to attack the pending regulations for England, Wales and Scotland.
David Simpson: Will the Minister give way?
Mr. Hanson: I cannot give way at the moment, because I want to finish my points in the 10 minutes that I have left. As you know, Mr. Williams, I would normally give way, but I want to cover all the points.
There has been a consultation and it will be subject to judicial review. I cannot comment on what will happen in due course, but there has been an opportunity for the Assembly to debate the regulations and individuals to comment on them. I was asked why we have brought the regulations forward now. First, it is the right thing to do and I believe that my hon. Friends, whether the vote were free or whipped, would support me in that. Equally, as I have said, there will be an election in Northern Ireland shortly. If we call that election on 30 January, we cannot make any Government announcements during February or most of March and we will have an Assembly in place from 26 March. I want to ensure that the regulations are in place at the earliest opportunity. I have had to bring them forward to ensure that we avoid the election period. I hope that that explanation will satisfy hon. Members.
Harassment has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Tewkesbury, for Upper Bann and for Oxford, West and Abingdon. The definition of harassment in the regulations is not a dangerously new broad definition. It is not something that I have invented over the summer and decided to put into place. The definition of harassment in the regulations is in its entirety the same as that applying in other pieces of anti-discrimination legislation, not least that in the Race Relations Order (Northern Ireland) 1997.
Another matter that came up was the question of enforcement. The hon. Member for Tewkesbury—I am pleased that he has put his points in a reasonable way, which is the way in which we operate in these Committees—mentioned enforceability. He gave the example of whether someone could be turned away from a guest house with the excuse that it is full when it is not full at all, and asked how we would examine and accept such matters. Nothing is perfect. We will never be able to judge on some occasions whether something is down to discrimination, to someone not liking the look of someone else for whatever reason, or to another reason. We are trying to put down a basic legal test so that if an individual feels that they have been wrongly persecuted because of their sexual orientation, they have a legal redress to stand up for their right to end that discrimination. I accept that it is not ever always going to be perfect. There might be occasions on which people feel that they have been discriminated against when they have not, but that is the basis of the legal test in due course.
Mr. Robertson: Will it be for that person to prove that they were discriminated against, as is normal in court proceedings? As the hon. Member for North Down mentioned, the forms in schedules I and II almost presume guilt.
Mr. Hanson: As ever, the court will ultimately determine the outcome of any case. However, the point is that we are trying to put down a basic set of moral beliefs in society about how an individual should be able to receive goods and services. That is a simple test. There will be grey edges—there always are with discrimination issues.
Mr. Robertson: I am asking about the burden of proof.
Mr. Hanson: The burden of proof will be there for the court to determine based on the complaint and the test, as any court will undertake to do. An individual will have to prove that they were discriminated against and an individual will have to prove that they did not discriminate. That will be the same in any legislation. I hope that we will never find a case in point where that happens. I hope that the culture change will ensure that we do not undertake that. I want to try to eradicate a situation whereby we face such a court case. The purpose of this is to try to change the culture in society to a tolerant, open and accepting one.
The hon. Member for Tewkesbury has mentioned the fact that we have made some exemptions, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey and other Labour Members have done so too. There are a number of exemptions and I know that some Members are happy with them, but wonder why they are inconsistent, and others are not happy with them and wonder why they cannot be eradicated. We had to draw the boundary somewhere, and the 25-member boundary is one that is recognised in other anti-discrimination legislation. To let you into a secret, Mr. Williams, I am not greatly enamoured of the boundary myself, but it is the current one, and it is fair and appropriate that we set one. In due course, it may be appropriate to make further progress, and I certainly hope so. For the moment, the boundary is a recognised one for private members’ clubs and for other legislation.
I want to mention three or four other points before my time expires. The hon. Member for Solihull mentioned transsexual individuals. We are currently working on the issue of legislation on goods and services in relation to such individuals and I hope that the Government will propose regulations by the end of the year. We are not covering the issue in the present proposals because there is still work to be done with the European Community.
The hon. Member for North Down asked whether the legislation is ECHR-compliant. Our view is that it is. The point is not mentioned in the legislation or the explanatory notes because, under the rules of the House, we are not permitted to give such a declaration.
The hon. Lady also mentioned the question of the Equality Commission. I have discussed the matter with the commission and it is true that the commission will have additional responsibilities. It has not yet madeany representations to me on the need for extra resources to meet the requirements, but I shall be happy to discuss its financial needs in due course if necessary.
The hon. Member for Upper Bann mentioned two specific questions relating to section 24, and whether we are satisfied that there is consistency between provisions. The Department has provided a detailed response in confidence to the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, which is examining the issue. The Committee itself has not yet deliberated on the response so I am not in a position to tell this Committee the outcome. Nevertheless, a view has been submitted and I am aware of the issue. The JCSI will report in due course.
Finally, there was the question of accommodation. It will be unlawful to discriminate against tenants or potential buyers on the basis of sexual orientation. As with other anti-discrimination legislation, there is an exception for provision of accommodation in someone’s own home. That is why the dividing line exists.
In conclusion, the measure is a progressive oneand one that will bring society in Northern Ireland into the 21st century with respect to the provision of goods and services for gay and bisexual individuals. I genuinely do not believe that people with strong religious beliefs have anything to fear from the legislation. They have a right to those beliefs, and gay and lesbian people have a right to receive goods and services on a non-discriminatory basis. I am proud to introduce the measure today and I am pleased to have the support of my hon. Friends. I commend the measure to the Committee because it is the right thing to do.
Question put:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 15, Noes 3.
Division No. 1 ]
Abbott, Ms Diane
Betts, Mr. Clive
Burt, Lorely
Corbyn, Jeremy
Eagle, Angela
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester)
Hanson, Mr. David
Harris, Dr. Evan
McCafferty, Chris
Mactaggart, Fiona
Norris, Dan
Prentice, Mr. Gordon
Simon, Mr. Siôn
Skinner, Mr. Dennis
Snelgrove, Anne
Hermon, Lady
Robertson, Mr. Laurence
Simpson, David
Question accordingly agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006 (S. I. (N. I.) 2006, No. 439).
Committee rose at Five o’clock.

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