Equality Bill

[back to previous text]

Dr. Harris: I urge the Committee to reject the amendment, obviously in polite terms, in the spirit of the stage of the debate that we have reached. [Interruption.] For several reasons. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury says that if I give reasons in a Public Bill Committee, that might make some Members change their minds. Well, they could do it on any basis, but it is important—
Emily Thornberry: I do not want the hon. Gentleman to misunderstand me, but I just want to make it clear that he may well find that he is pushing at an open door. Perhaps we could, given the hour, appeal the light and go home.
Dr. Harris: I take the hon. Lady’s point, but I want to make a couple of brief points. It is not satisfactory to argue for special protection for religion while at the same time arguing that it should be treated the same in every other way. That is asking for special treatment on the basis of doctrinal and ethical teachings. In fact, religion already benefits, because political statements of view receive no protection at all under discrimination, whereas arguably quite contentious views founded on religion benefit from some protection albeit, as we know from our previous debates on direct discrimination, not as many.
John Mason: If the hon. Gentleman would like to introduce an amendment suggesting that political beliefs should be protected, I would be very supportive.
7.15 pm
Dr. Harris: The harassment provisions in employment give protection for the treatment of people manifesting their religion in a way that is not available for people who are manifesting their political, aesthetic or cultural opinions. Religion and, indeed, philosophical belief—it is not exclusive to religion—is already given status. The hon. Gentleman need not worry that it is being treated like anything else. The fact that it is often in scripture or ethical teachings is, rightly or wrongly, acknowledged in the law. We should be careful; Scientology would be covered by his proposal, as would a whole series of other religions, sects and cults. The hon. Gentleman needs to be careful in what he is asking us to endorse. Secondly, his explanatory statement says:
“Indirect discrimination is still permitted if it is proportionate”
under the test which we have already discussed, however it is framed, of clause 18(2)(d).
Again, we have the same problem, as the hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. If the proposal means anything—and the requirement that the amendment should be subject to clause 18(2) is the relevant issue—it does not add any additional protection and should not be accepted because it makes no difference. If it is his intention that subsection (2) should be diluted in some way, in respect of something that just happens to be
“stated doctrinal or ethical teachings”
then for the reasons I have given, I urge the Committee to oppose the amendment.
The Solicitor-General: I imagine what the hon. Member for Glasgow, East is looking for is legitimisation or conscientious objection, but the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon has put his finger on the point that clause 18 allows justification for something like that in some circumstances.
What the hon. Member for Glasgow, East seeks to say is that a provision, criterion or practice is discriminatory if it requires somebody of a religion or belief to act in a way that contravenes the stated doctrinal or ethical teachings of the religion or belief. From the point of view of protecting the religious, we do not think that that is necessary. It would be potentially unlawful under the Bill for a provision, criterion or practice to require an orthodox Jew to work on a Saturday, for example. The question would be whether such a requirement could be justified under clause 18(2)(d) in particular circumstances.
Specifying that one form of behaviour which is clearly covered by the definition is to be regarded as indirectly discriminatory is an odd thing to do, because it is already covered. As we rehearsed on an earlier provision, it may raise questions about others and it might be unclear whether a provision would be regarded as indirectly discriminatory if it contravened beliefs which are not doctrinally or ethically linked to a religion, but which are nevertheless commonly held. I think the hon. Gentleman is familiar with that argument. Putting it in a nutshell, this would muddy the waters, and it would not give any enhanced protection to the religious. The best way to deal with it is to put in the unamended definition of indirect discrimination, make it applicable to religion or belief as we do already, and that is that.
John Mason: I thank the Minister for her points and on that basis I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 18 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned.(Lyn Brown.)
7.19 pm
Adjourned till Thursday 18 June at Nine o’clock.
Previous Contents
House of Commons 
home page Parliament home page House of 
Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 17 June 2009