Equality Bill

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The Solicitor-General: I agree. I am not sure whether the Redcar half-marathon position would have been unlawful under the current law, but happily it did not come to that. If a sponsor says they will not pay unless the terms are changed, the terms are usually changed, and that is what happened. I agree that we should make what progress we can and encourage the availability of sport to children and adults of both sexes. We should break down barriers and make it clear that things that were thought to be an impediment to sport in the past may not be so now.
For example, we used to say that girls should not play rugby. Redcar rugby club has a thriving young girls’ rugby team now. We also used to say that women should not do fencing because of the dangers. All that happens now is that a woman wears some sort of padded chest protector and they can fence just as well as the guys. In fact, sometimes women are better because fencing is a bit like ballet, which is about being dextrous and nimble on one’s feet. We need to look at each sport where there is a gender imbalance and knock away the props of bigotry that support the distinction.
I hope that I have satisfied the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon that the Minister for the Olympics is doing her best. As I started to say, she has been asking for support from the British Olympic Association and the national sport governing bodies to identify and try to bring on those sports where a major gender imbalance exists, and where we could realistically achieve changes by 2012. The IOC acknowledges that it is in transition and that there is a job to do to move itself further toward equality. The hon. Gentleman has rightly raised the issue, but I invite him to accept that it is being dealt with in another area and that it would not fit into the Bill.
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Dr. Harris: I am grateful to the Solicitor-General. I restrain myself from speaking about my own sporting prowess, which extended only to playing the Minister of State, Government Equalities Office, in a chess match 20 years ago when I played with a team in Liverpool and she played for Formby Ladies. She was better than me, but I was fortunate enough to win through a swindle. But that makes the point that there are some sports, of which chess is one, where there is no reason why women should not play. It should be promoted more as a sport, but that is a different issue.
In brief, I am grateful for the Solicitor-General’s response, particularly her acceptance that there is a need for the Government to do what they can to put pressure on and work with the British Olympic Association, Sport England and other national sport governing bodies to make the IOC recognise that there is a difference between having a medal event that is only for men because generally only men do it, and having more medals for men than women in a sport where there is no basis for that any more because the levels of achievement and athleticism are identical. I hope that we will be able to take this forward on a cross-party basis outside this Committee with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. With that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Harper: I wanted to raise a constituency issue that relates to subsections (5) and (6) about selection criteria for sport based on nationality or residence. I wanted to check whether what is happening in this case is lawful. If it is lawful, it is still quite mad, but we should establish whether it is actually lawful. This is a cross-border issue. I ask the Committee to forgive me for troubling it with this matter, but it goes directly to subsections (5) and (6).
The Gwent Football Association is trying to enact a new ruling that will prevent players—when I say “players”, I am referring to young children, those eight years old and above—who live in England from continuing to play in the East Gwent league, which they are currently able to do. I have 53 children in my constituency who are currently able to play junior football in the East Gwent league, but it is proposed by the Gwent FA that they will not be able to do so come the autumn. They will be able to start playing at under six, but when they get to eight they will not be able to play for one of those Welsh clubs if they live in England. The particular club I refer to is Chepstow Garden City junior football club.
That matter was raised with me by the chairman of Tidenham parish council, and as the Solicitor-General would expect, I raised it today with the Gwent FA and have also written to the Minister in the Welsh Assembly Government who deals with sport, but I just noticed that the clause states that the subsection applies only when
“selecting one or more persons to represent a country, place or area or a related association, in a sport or game”.
What does “represent” mean in such cases? The football club is Chepstow Garden City. Chepstow is a town in Wales, but the area that it covers—its environs—stretches to both sides of the Welsh border. People who live in my constituency in Sedbury, Beachley and Tutshill very much look to Chepstow as their nearest town. It is the place where they shop and work. It seems perfectly sensible that children who live in the areas where Chepstow is the closest town would look to it, and to that particular football club, to play football.
Mr. Boswell: My hon. Friend’s argument is very cogent—it is not as if the East Gwent Association was required to select people to play for Wales or even for the local community when they came from across the border. The issue is simply whether they can participate in the sport.
Mr. Harper: That is exactly my point. If someone is representing their country—Wales, for example—it is sensible to require a connection with it and that someone is born or lives there. But it strikes me that this rule is completely mad. [Interruption.] Children would be able to play in Welsh schools football and could play in Cardiff, their parents could play for senior football clubs in Gwent, but a rather silly rule has been picked for junior clubs.
The Chairman: Order. I am sorry to interrupt, but there is too much background noise.
Mr. Harper: I am grateful, Mr. Benton.
May I ask the Minister what “represent” means? Based on the admittedly limited facts that I have been able to furnish, is what Gwent FA is doing lawful? If she confirms that it is, I contend that it is not sensible. In a letter that I have written to the club I have urged it to allow some common sense to prevail, so that the 53 children already registered with that football club and their brothers, sisters and friends who want to play for it can continue to do so. Given that we coincidentally happen to be considering clause 188 at more or less the time I was alerted to the problem, I would be grateful to explore what the law says on the subject.
The Solicitor-General: Of course, my legal advice is usually incredibly pricey, even when I do not know the answer, which is the situation now. I am really not sure. I have not looked at it in sufficient depth to venture a view. The hon. Gentleman will have to contend that it does not represent the area. The difficulty might be whether it is a related association. The discrimination, as it were, which is licensed in the clause, allows for the selection of someone to represent either a place or a related association in a sport or game of a competitive nature. My first instinct was that it was lawful—if mean—to do what the club had done, but it is probably a question of fact whether the club represents the place where it is, which it might, or is a related association. So I think the hon. Gentleman needs to contend that it is not lawful because it does not represent the area, and see what comes back.
Mr. Harper: I am grateful to the Minister for that advice. I will prevail upon Gwent FA to see sense. If it fails to do so, I might pursue my line of argument and persuade the club that its actions are unlawful, or that it does not wish to risk the issue turning into a battle. I am grateful for the Minister’s advice—provided to the Committee for free.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 188 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 189 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 23

General exceptions
John Mason: I beg to move amendment 58, in schedule 23, page 235, line 20, leave out sub-paragraph (2).
Allows commercial religious bodies to benefit from exceptions covering religion and sexual orientation, so long as they also fit within paragraph 2(1).
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment 295, in schedule 23, page 235, line 20, leave out ‘sole or main’.
Amendment to probe the question of whether organisations which have a commercial sideline are free to discriminate in that commercial activity.
Amendment 296, in schedule 23, page 236, line 5, at end insert— ‘and,
(c) where the service provided is not a commercial activity.’.
Amendment to probe the question of whether organisations that have a commercial sideline are free to discriminate in that activity.
Amendment 59, in schedule 23, page 236, line 18, leave out sub-paragraph (10).
Religious groups that provide services on behalf of public authorities (e.g. Roman Catholic adoption agencies) are allowed to discriminate on grounds of religion but not sexual orientation, the amendment would allow religious groups to discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation where they can show their faith requires it.
Amendment 305, in schedule 23, page 236, line 18, leave out from ‘anything’ to end.
This is to prevent organisations discriminating on the grounds of sexual orientation when performing a public function in the provision of premises or in Associations.
Amendment 251, in schedule 23, page 236, line 19, after ‘orientation’, insert ‘or religion or belief’.
John Mason: I thank you, Mr. Benton, for the opportunity to be a part of the Committee under your chairmanship. I will be speaking to my final amendments in the area of religion, so hopefully we will not have many more debates.
Schedule 23 deals with exceptions from the ban on discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services. There are exceptions for acts of the Executive in paragraph 1; organisations relating to religion or belief in paragraph 2; single-sex accommodation in paragraph 3; and training for people from outside the European economic area in paragraph 4. There is no dispute over the need for exceptions; the question is how far they should go.
My amendments 58 and 59 aim to widen the scope of the exceptions in paragraph 2 to include some religious organisations that would otherwise be excluded. Like other exceptions, paragraph 2 is hedged about with conditions that religious bodies must fulfil before they can benefit from the exception. According to paragraph 2(1), they must exist to
“practise... advance... teach... a religion or belief... or... foster... good relations between... religions”,
or to enable people to receive services “within the framework” of that belief. Limitations on religious grounds can be imposed, under paragraph 2(6), only if it is
“because of the purpose of the organisation”
or to avoid religious offence. Limitations on sexual orientation grounds can be imposed, under paragraph 2(7), only if
“it is necessary to comply with... doctrine... or... avoid conflict with strongly held religious convictions”.
That is a lot of hoops to jump through, but is probably wide enough.
My amendment 58 deals with a further restriction that paragraph 2 of schedule 23 imposes. Under sub-paragraph (2), a religious organisation that passes all the other tests needs only to be deemed mainly “commercial” by a court to be deprived of all the other exemptions available within the confines of paragraph 2. The UK is home to many such organisations; for example, Christian books, music and DVDs supply a vigorous market, and Christian bookshops, publishers, holiday camps and conference centres have been around for decades and fulfil a religious mission, but at the same time could be considered to be commercial to a greater or lesser extent.
Amendment 59 deals with a similar restriction, deleting sub-paragraph (3), which allows a religious organisation that provides services on behalf of a public authority to be sued for sexual orientation discrimination. Just as many religious bodies engage in commerce, many faith bodies provide public services. Often they supply buildings, staff or volunteers at no expense whatever to the public purse, although the services may be publicly funded. They find themselves in the odd situation that they can continue to make decisions about service provision based on religion—sub-paragraph (3) does not affect that—but if they take account of sexual orientation they can be sued. I find it hard to see why sexual orientation is singled out in that way. That reaches further into the internal affairs of religious organisations than religious discrimination law. I see that amendment 251 seeks to resolve that inconsistency in a way that is even more detrimental to religious organisations, depriving them of the ability to discriminate on either ground.
For most people, the existence of the religious exemptions is not controversial. Beyond those two areas, the Government accept that to apply discrimination law as an unqualified absolute would lead to injustice for religion or belief organisations, because such organisations operate according to a particular set of beliefs that constitutes their whole reason for existing. However, I would be the first to accept that exemptions can also be too wide, and society needs to draw a line somewhere, within which all religions are allowed to operate.
The whole point of the paragraph 2 exemptions is to grant religious organisations freedom to operate according to a particular ethos by limiting the membership, the use of their buildings or the terms of their service provision. If any organisation has funded its building largely itself, it should have control over it and not be expected to hire it out to another organisation opposing its belief. Obviously, if public money has been taken to fund the building, strings would clearly be attached.
My contention is that existing exemptions for religious organisations are inadequate in the two areas of commerce and public service, because sub-paragraphs (2) and (10) completely deprive certain religious organisations of such protection against being forced to compromise the very beliefs that constitute their reason for being. Yet that requirement for protection of an ethos is particularly engaged in those fields of service provision. The principle of a commercial organisation or publicly funded service provider having freedom to resist endorsing views that conflict with its own ethos seems perfectly reasonable.
Ironically, the law has little issue with strongly held points of view that do not happen to fall within a protected characteristic. For example, an eco-friendly printer, run on green principles, is quite at liberty to reject a request to print a prospectus for a multinational oil company. Similarly, the management of a community centre not wishing its facilities to provide a platform for the British National party can refuse a BNP booking, because political belief is not a protected ground. The same principle underlies the exemptions in paragraph 2. To require a religious organisation by law to provide a platform for views fundamentally opposed to its own seems very strange.
Obviously some commercial or publicly funded activities of religious organisations would not by their nature involve any danger of contravening their religious beliefs. For example, I am sure that a Muslim restaurant that adhered to halal principles would gladly serve any customer and that a church that receives public funding to run soup kitchens would distribute the soup to absolutely anyone. In such cases, the client’s religion or sexual orientation will be of no consequence.
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