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John Mason: I am restraining myself from intervening too often, but on that point, is the picture that the hon. Gentleman paints not a little bit away from reality? The reality in Glasgow, with which I am familiar—I believe it is also the case in other cities and boroughs—is that councils support the celebration of religious and other cultural events across the spectrum. They might support a larger group a little bit more, but my experience of local authorities is that they are very good at supporting all sorts of groups in the community. Is that not the way we want to go?
Dr. Harris: Local authorities do not need legislation of this kind to do that. The provisions might mean that they have a duty—not discretion—to do such things. Every religious group might say, “We have a right to be funded to the same extent as every other religion is funded or supported by you”—by which I mean the public authority. There is no bar to that expectation in the drafting of the provision. I am all in favour of there being discretion, but the duty to have regard to the need to provide equality of opportunity coupled with the fact that public authorities are already funding some religions to do certain things, will lead to more not less religion-specific provision. It will also lead to more divisiveness and more segregation in the delivery of public services. That is not something we should be looking towards.
John Mason: Again, I wonder about the gap between the theory and the reality. If, for example, a religious group is giving out soup to homeless people at night, it will give it to every single homeless person who is there. It would not know what someone’s religion was, if they had a religion or about any such issues. Surely there is a danger, if we go to the other extreme, of squeezing out all the religious groups that hand out soup, and the people who will suffer are the homeless people who will not get any more soup.
Dr. Harris: There is nothing wrong with local authorities giving contracts to religious organisations. My concern is where religious organisations discriminate on the basis of religion or belief. An example is given in the explanatory notes to another part of the Bill. Public funding may be used for adoption agencies, which perform a critical public function. It is the Government’s intention, apparently, to allow adoption agencies to discriminate against people of the wrong religion in deciding who can apply to adopt a baby.
Perhaps Catholic adoption agencies are a particular attraction to prospective Catholic parents. There is nothing wrong with that—indeed, they could market more among those people—but to say, “No Protestants can access services through us” seems to me to be wrong in a public function, whether or not it is funded by the public. It means that a Muslim organisation or Muslim individuals will say, “Wow, there’s a Catholic adoption agency and we can’t apply there. Equality of opportunity means by definition that we should have our own adoption agency, which caters only for us.” Then the Jews might say, “Well, we can’t apply to the Catholic or the Muslim adoption agency. We want our own” and then Protestants will want their own. The only group that would not want their own—although they might be forced to have one—is the atheists.
A balkanisation of services would result, founded on the basis that discrimination is allowed, for no good reason. I do not think the parents’ religion matters, in the end, in terms of whether babies will be well placed with them. I agree that Catholic adoption agencies might encourage Catholic parents to come forward. They might be good at recruiting parents, who are desperately needed; I do not have a problem with that. But to have a blanket ban on people of other religions accessing a public service is unjustified. Coupling that with an equality duty will result in the same thing with every single religious organisation, and only religious organisations. An adoption agency cannot say, “No blacks,” so that balkanisation would never occur in race; it occurs only in religion. The cat is already out of the bag, unless we close it in this clause. I have made that point enough times, so I promise not to return to it.
In the paper provided to hon. Members, the EHRC makes the point that a possible benefit of the public sector equality duty in respect of religion and belief is improved access to health or other public services
“by enhancing responsiveness to religious sensitivities and practices, such as greater consideration of the impact of Ramadan observance in the context of providing health care, support for students and even in terms of adjusting scheduled timetables”.
I have not argued that there is no merit in the proposal whatever; this is just a series of risk-benefit analyses. However, many of the examples given by the EHRC are clearly covered by subsection (3)(a), for example. If my amendment is not made, and an amendment were later made to remove subsection (3)(b), leaving in subsections (1)(b) and (3)(a), any disadvantage suffered by people who cannot access services could be covered. I would be prepared to see it covered; I cannot speak for Lord Lester, who I suspect feels more strongly about the public sector duty as it applies to religion. If a clear disadvantage is suffered by people who share a relevant protected characteristic, the provision can be left in, but that is different from a cited need. That is why many of the EHRC’s examples can be addressed without the need for subsection (3)(b), although I accept that some of them are arguable.
Many of the EHRC’s examples are examples of unjustifiable indirect discrimination. If one criterion for accessing health services in a hospital is wearing a very immodest gown—both women and men are made to wear them, but in this case, it is of concern to Muslim women—and people cannot comply with that criterion because of their religious belief, that is unjustifiable indirect discrimination. Hospitals should provide—many do, and they all ought to—appropriate hospital gowns that do not create such discrimination. I do not believe that it is a question of need as laid out here.
Other examples given by the EHRC involve improving police practice and attitudes across the public sector towards particular religious groups. It is not my view that a public sector equality duty is needed to achieve that, where it is required. That has been happening for a long time, and I do not think that the public sector duty should hinge on whether that is done.
The EHRC gives the example of the provision of women-only gyms, but the Bill already permits women-only gyms or swimming periods to be provided. A public sector equality duty is not required to allow that for, for example, Muslim women. Interestingly, the EHRC cites the Southall Black Sisters in defence of extending the public sector equality duty to religion and belief, but, in fact, that group has written to the discrimination law review consultation strongly opposing extension of the public sector equality duty to religion and belief.
I quote from the organisation Women Against Fundamentalism, which
“is opposed to the extension of the single equality duty to religion and belief. We strongly feel that an extension will not promote equality but will instead reinforce inequality...We would remind the Equalities Office, that the right to manifest one’s religion, unlike the race and gender equality duties, cannot be treated as an absolute duty.”
It says “duty”, but it is a right, of course. Women Against Fundamentalism goes on to state that there is
“an urgent need to address the complications that arise when religious discrimination is treated unproblematically as an ‘equality’ strand. At national and local levels, religious identity politics is being contested by women and others within minority communities, as well as in the wider society in their struggle to be free from racism, gender violence or other oppressive restrictions whose persistence are themselves an indicator of inequality.”
That group has concerns, and I know that the Minister will be aware of other organisations that share them.
Southall Black Sisters wrote to say similar things about its opposition to the provision relating to religion. It stated in its letter of 8 October to the discrimination law review team:
“Our concerns about extending the equality duty to religion and belief stem directly from our day to day casework experience and our struggle to maintain a service for all black and minority women in a context where the politicisation of religion (a deeply reactionary and discriminatory development) worldwide, has resulted in the shrinking of secular spaces—a necessary precondition in our struggle for women’s human rights.”
The letter goes on to explain the background of Southall Black Sisters, which is a respectable organisation. That is why I am not surprised that the EHRC should seek to cite it in support, but, in fact, the group is clear that it is opposed to the duty. It states:
“By seeking to include religion in the promotion of equality, our concern is that the state will be signalling the view that the promotion of equality involves supporting organisations of a particular faith or belief even if they have beliefs that are profoundly exclusionary and discriminatory. By extending the equality duty to cover religion, the state will be implicated in promoting indirect discrimination and inequality and indeed in human rights violations, leading to a watering down of human rights standards where minority communities are concerned.”
I do not say that the group is saying that that applies to all religious organisations or, for example, to Muslim organisations in general, but it is clear that its experience from the work that it does shows that there is a problem. It does not want what it sees as the subjugation of women by some religious organisations to be helped by the state through a public sector duty.
I have raised with the EHRC, as has Lord Lester, a concern about this matter of public policy: religious organisations will say that equality of opportunity means that their need to have creationism taught in schools, or not to have casinos in their area will be supported by an equality duty. For some reason, in its response, the EHRC seems to feel that the concern is about legislation—that there would be a positive duty in legislation to promote equality of opportunity. We are talking about public policy, not legislation.
4.30 pm
Finally, I return to the main concern. We must decide, when considering how to proceed carefully and get the balance right, whether we will be a bulwark to the increasing trend, and the fear of an increasing trend, for public services, whether adoption, counselling or hospice services, to be delivered on the basis of one religious group receiving from one provider, and another religious group receiving from another. That trend goes against the rest of the public sector equality duty, which talks about fostering
“good relations between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it.”
It is a matter of concern that an attempt to promote equality might lead to greater conflict.
We must be certain that the promotion of equality will not be used by public authorities to suppress free speech. Some people feel very strongly about other people, and that might be because of those other people’s religious views or behaviour. The people who feel strongly are often, though not exclusively, of their own religious view. There is a concern that public authorities will feel pressured to restrict freedom of speech, to meet people’s need not to be attacked—short of unlawful incitement to hatred and violations of the Public Order Act 1986—and will say, “We are not going to allow you to hold your meeting in our hall.”
I should like an assurance from the Minister that, although we might not agree with strongly held religious views being expressed against the followers of other religions, the public sector duty will not be used by public authorities to justify not allowing, for example, a fiery Baptist preacher to preach in strong terms to his followers against followers of other religions, short of breaching laws on incitement to religious hatred. In promoting community cohesion, there is a natural concern to prevent such activity, but we must recognise that the protection of free speech trumps much of that concern when the speech itself is not unlawful. I should be grateful for clarification and support from the Minister on those grounds.
Amendment 297 is about exactly that need to protect free speech when public authorities perform their duties. It is only a probing amendment, but I want reassurance from the Minister that the duty will not be used to undermine the free speech of individuals, whether they are religious or not.
John Mason: I appreciate the opportunity to speak this afternoon, Lady Winterton. I want to start by touching on the final remarks of the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, who painted perhaps a slightly extreme picture of where we are, or where we are going. He used the word “balance”, which was encouraging; we are looking for some kind of balance and compromise. We do not want one group to be dominant over others.
I was interested in the hon. Gentleman’s view that society might be moving more towards religious organisations running things. I had felt that things were the other way round. In Scotland, virtually all the schools were started by Churches and have gradually come to be run by the state and to become more secular. The trend that I and, I think, other religious people perceive is away from religion and towards secularism.
I am happy to welcome the clause and its intentions. The idea of a public sector equality duty is good, and I welcome it on the whole. In the Equality Act 2006 and the 2007 sexual orientation regulations, the Government decided against extending the public duty on the grounds of religion and sexual orientation because of the controversy that it could have caused. The Government wanted to take their time. The question remains: have we got the right balance?
Clearly, some want the duty to do more, and others want it to do less. The BBC and Channel 4, as publicly funded broadcasters, say that they are worried that the duty goes too far and that it might affect their editorial independence. I assume that the Conservative amendments in the next group would address that. The TUC, however, says that the duty does not go far enough and that it should apply to charities. Of course, much of the detail on how the duty will apply is yet to be thrashed out in secondary legislation, which we will come to when we debate clauses 145 to 149.
The Government have taken on a monumental task in trying to square this circle. Amendment 49 goes to the heart of what I have been trying to achieve throughout the Committee, which is a recognition of the need for balance between the various competing rights and the fostering of good relations and mutual respect between people of differing views, rather than one side being given a stick with which to beat the other. I hope that I have found some support for that.
I am also grateful that, although the Minister has not accepted any of my amendments, she has sought to offer reassurance to religious groups that religion does not come bottom of the equality pile. My amendment would make that clear. In fact, it would make it clear that no strand comes bottom of the pile, but that public authorities promoting equality must balance all strands.
Subsection (1)(c) mentions the need to “foster good relations”. I must admit that that is one of the phrases in the clause about which I am most enthusiastic. My amendment would make it clear that fostering good relations involves a
“balance between the rights of persons who share a”
“protected characteristic and the rights of persons who share a different...protected characteristic”.
Clearly, as is now obvious to all, a clash is most likely to arise between rights based on religion and belief and rights based on sexual orientation. Some people feel that one strand dominates another. We have previously talked about the case of Lillian Ladele, the Christian registrar. I understand that since last week, one of Miss Ladele’s colleagues has gone public about the fact that she too has been disciplined and threatened with dismissal by Islington over her conscientious objection to registering same-sex civil partnerships. Supporters and opponents of Miss Ladele both feel that the Employment Appeal Tribunal ruling on her case, which is being appealed, means that every time religion conflicts with sexual orientation, the latter wins. Adam Fuge, a principal at Matthew Arnold & Baldwin solicitors, wrote in Personnel Today magazine in May that the Ladele case means that there is now
“a pecking order of competing equalities”
in which religion often loses out.
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