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Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab):
I am pleased to be able to intervene on my hon. and learned Friend as chair of the Dalit Solidarity Network trustees. I welcome the amendment and her response to it. Will
she tell us who will evaluate the report that she has commissioned, and when she expects that evaluation to be complete so that whoever is the Minister at that time can introduce the necessary regulations?
The Solicitor-General: The process should be that the report comes out in August and if there is evidence-we intend to disclose and discuss it with all the stakeholders that brought the issue to our attention-amendment 1 would ensure that, if necessary, we could introduce an amendment through secondary legislation to include race and caste in the definitions. I hope that my hon. Friend finds that process acceptable. It is, of course, a precautionary measure, as it were, because we do not yet know what the research will show. We have every intention, now that we have some evidence, of plumbing to the depths to decide whether there is a need to legislate to protect another subset of persons.
I move swiftly on to deal with school issues through amendments 2 and 29 to clauses 17 and 84, which are about protecting pregnant schoolgirls and young mothers from discrimination in school. Already in place are duties on schools and local authorities to provide suitable education for all children. There is guidance for schools on the issue of school-age parents, which we initially felt was sufficient to provide protection for girls who got pregnant at school without extending discrimination law in this area. However, we have listened to the concerns raised and we are now prepared to extend protection from discrimination here as well to provide clarity and certainty.
To move briefly into party politics, amendments 34 to 36 amend clauses 104 and 105, dealing with the selection of candidates by political parties. They add an explicit proportionality test for the positive action that might be taken to reduce inequality in our democratic institutions. Action might be taken, for instance, to encourage greater participation by people from black and ethnic minority communities through proportionality; it might, for example, be proportionate to target extra training, mentoring or funding to prospective candidates from under-represented groups, but not to provide such support only to them to the exclusion of others. However, this proportionality test will not apply to the time-limited legislation to permit all-women shortlists, because we feel that the time limiting, until 2030, is already a proportionate way of tackling the serious and continued under-representation of women in Parliament and other elected institutions.
Still on the subject of party politics, amendments 37, 38, 63, 106 and 111 arise out of a recommendation from the Speaker's Conference. They would insert a new clause 106, which would give Ministers power to require registered political parties to publish data relating to the diversity of candidates seeking selection. The point is to help to disclose any under-representation with a view to identifying barriers that might be causing it. Let me be clear that nothing in the provision will require a potential candidate to disclose any personal information he or she does not wish to disclose, and that the requirement to publish will apply only to anonymised data from which nobody can be identified.
The Solicitor-General: We hope that everyone will co-operate, and we hope that the hon. Gentleman will encourage that co-operation in the usual way he encourages these radical and progressive measures to bear full fruit.
Following full consultation, including with political parties, the Electoral Commission and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, regulations will set out among other things which protected characteristics must be reported on, when, for what period the data are to be published and in respect of which elections and which political parties. This means that the requirements can be flexible and responsive to changing circumstances. For instance, it will be possible to require just large political parties to report and for the reports to cover only sex and race and only in respect of general elections. As I say, the details will be the subject of full consultation before any requirements are imposed.
Turning to deal with civil partnerships, amendments 53, 85 and 112 would insert new provisions into the Bill to amend the Civil Partnership Act 2004. They would remove the express prohibition on civil partnerships taking place in religious premises. This change applies only to England and Wales because civil partnership is devolved and any decision on this issue for Scotland and Northern Ireland would be a matter for them.
These amendments were tabled in the other place on Report by Lord Ali and pressed to a Division. The Government allowed a free vote because it seemed to us to raise a matter of religious freedom and conscience. The vote was won in the Lords, and once the other place had made it clear that it intended the amendment to be accepted, we assisted to make sure that it would be effective. Let me make it clear that no religious group or denomination will be forced to open their place of worship to civil partnership if it does not want to; no proprietor of religious premises or religious denomination will be liable for discrimination if they do not post civil partnership registrations on their premises. That has to be applied for in order for such premises to be used for civil partnerships; it is left that way around, and the regulations governing the approval will be able to say, for instance, who can make an application on behalf of which denomination, and clearly that can be done only with proper consultation. A couple who wanted to register their civil partnership in a church that had not been approved for it could not do so, therefore, and they could not require a denomination to seek approval to enable it.
On harassment, amendments 82 and 84 would amend the general interpretation clause to make it clear for the avoidance of doubt that where harassment is not explicitly prohibited, for example in harassment related to religion, belief or sexual orientation in school, protection is none the less available through the provisions prohibiting direct discrimination by subjecting a person to a detriment. Therefore, a pupil who is harassed, in the commonly understood sense of the word, by a teacher as a result of his or her religion, belief or sexual orientation, can bring a claim for direct discrimination if the treatment causes that pupil to suffer a detriment.
An amendment opposed to this Lords amendment has been tabled by the hon. Members for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) and for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), which would mean that in those areas where harassment is not specifically prohibited, a person bullied because of his or her religion or belief will not have a remedy under the Bill. Imagining that the motivation behind their amendment is a concern that even the current approach makes it too easy for those with religious sensitivities to complain, let me say that in the case of employment the specific definition of harassment for religion or belief has been in place since 2003, and in the case of goods and services the detriment element of the definition of religious or belief discrimination has been in place since 2007, and in neither area has significant trouble or problem arisen. I am sure Members will agree that it will be better that, for instance, a Muslim schoolboy subjected to bullying by a school playground supervisor because of his religion should have a remedy. For this reason, I will ask the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady to withdraw their amendment.
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): I would be grateful if the hon. and learned Lady would just clarify why she felt this amendment was needed at all, if it has always been the case that there was this recourse to detriment. If that is so, what does this amendment that the Government inserted in the Lords add to the current position?
The Solicitor-General: I think it makes it very much clearer, which is very important, especially for legislation that simply will not work unless it is accessible, comprehensible and understood by everybody who wants to be protected by it.
Amendments 90 and 108 on gender reassignment would amend schedules 3 and 24 to make it clear that it is not unlawful discrimination for a minister of religion to refuse to solemnise the marriage of a person if he or she reasonably believes the person has undergone gender reassignment. These amendments take account of the different arrangements governing marriages in the Church of England and the Church in Wales, where ministers are required to marry qualifying couples, the corresponding arrangements in Scotland and the different arrangements applying to marriages in registered buildings and other religious marriages. That preserves the existing provision under the Marriage Act 1949, which might otherwise have been in doubt given the Bill's extension of protection from gender reassignment discrimination to the exercise of public functions. That is a very specific provision.
Let me turn briefly to broadcasting. Amendments 91 and 109 amend schedules 3 and 24, in response to broadcasters' concerns, simply to make it clear that nothing in the Bill is intended to undermine their editorial independence. The amendments put it beyond doubt that the services and public functions provisions do not apply to broadcasting and distribution of content services.
Mr. Cash: On the question of the editorial matters of the BBC, is the Minister satisfied that the rules regarding editorial policy embodied in the charter and in the guidelines adequately provide the degree of impartiality that is necessary in our present-day democracy? Does she think, perhaps, that the editorial policy needs to be tightened up?
The Solicitor-General: I am not sure what day Department for Culture, Media and Sport questions is, but I think that question was an excellent one formulated for the next event. This is the Equality Bill. [ Interruption. ]
Mr. Speaker: Order. I apologise for interrupting the Minister, but I say to the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), who is an experienced and senior Member of the House and who is well able to make his point when he is on his feet, that he should not also seek to make it from his seat.
Amendments 93 to 95 dip back into the religious world and the occupational requirement exception for organised religion in paragraph 2 of schedule 9-a paragraph and schedule with which we became very familiar in Committee. These amendments were opposed by the Government and would remove from the religious occupational requirements exception the proportionality test and the definition of the very narrow range of religious jobs that the exception covers. These elements, though, would remain implicit because they are in the current law. Although we regret that their lordships did not see the value of the clarifying provisions in the Bill and voted to accept these amendments, the fact remains that the Bill, as amended, has the same effect as the existing law. With that in mind, the Government have decided not to seek to reject these amendments.
Again, the hon. Members for Oxford, West and Abingdon and for Hornsey and Wood Green are resisting amendments 93 and 94, which remove the express proportionality test. I can only reiterate what they have heard me say many times before-there will be no reduction in protection as a result of the Lords amendments. We talked a lot in Committee about the High Court case-the Amicus case, as we call it. In the view of the High Court, the existing exception
"has to be construed purposively so as to ensure, so far as possible, compatibility with the Directive"
that underlies it. As a proportionality test is required by that directive, the exception must be construed compatibly with that. The removal of the express proportionality test will not change the legal effect of the exception.
The House might recall that it was mentioned on Report and Third Reading that the European Commission had delivered a reasoned opinion in November 2009 on two aspects of our implementation of this directive. We have now responded to that opinion, although the correspondence is kept confidential. However, as my noble Friend Baroness Royall explained on 25 January in the debate in Committee in the other place, we did not inform the European Commission that the Bill will amend regulation 7(3) of the 2003 regulations, which paragraph 2 of schedule 9 replaces, to bring the position into line with the directive. We did not say that because the existing legislation already complies with the directive. I ask the House to agree to these amendments.
Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con):
It is worth saying briefly at the outset-for the avoidance of doubt, and particularly because the Minister for Women and Equality, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) goes around saying such things-that the Conservative party has never opposed the Bill. We are very pleased that it is nearing the end of its progress and that it will get Royal
Assent before the House is dissolved. The reason for that is because it consolidates nine Acts of Parliament, 100 pieces of secondary legislation and 2,500 pages of guidance, and because it has been welcomed by many organisations as broadly simplifying and making more straightforward the existing law. What we have said is that we do not agree with three parts of the Bill. If we form the Government after the next election, we will not bring those three requirements-socio-economic duty, the mistaken way in which the Government are tackling equal pay, and positive action, which I shall mention later-into force.
Dr. Evan Harris: Before the hon. Gentleman does that, will he make it clear whether his position is the same as that expressed by his colleague, the shadow Home Secretary, that bed-and-breakfast owners should be entitled to exclude people on the ground of their sexual orientation? The Conservative party's position on that issue, which relates to schedule 23, is not clear, but I think that lots of people would want to know what it is.
Mr. Harper: I am very pleased that the hon. Gentleman asked me that. I thought that someone would, and if it had not been him, I suspect that it would have been the Minister for Women and Equality, if she had been taking this business through, given that she cannot resist the opportunity to do so sometimes. I will be very clear. My hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) has said himself that he voted in favour of those sexual orientation regulations. He is content with the law as it is and he does not seek to change it. On that, he is in line with the rest of the party. We support that part of the Bill and we do not propose to change it. I think that is abundantly clear.
Mr. Harper: I have just set out my hon. Friend's position. [ Interruption. ] No, it is what he said, and I have just made very clear the position of both my hon. Friend and the Conservative party. That is very clear and does not need repeating.
On Lords amendment 1 on caste, which I know the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) is interested in, the Solicitor-General made a very clear exposition of the need for the amendment. We discussed it in detail in Committee, and there was consensus that if there was clear evidence of harm and of a need for the measure, it made sense to have it in the legislation. I support having caste as a subset of race rather than inventing a new protected characteristic, and I think it would be sensible for whoever forms a Government after the next election to look very clearly at the evidence and to make a decision on that part of the legislation depending on whether there is evidence of harm.
On Lords amendments 34 to 38 on reporting the diversity of candidates, there was a very good debate in the House of Lords. My noble Friend, Baroness Morris of Bolton, set out our position clearly, and we are very
happy to support the proposals. I had a good discussion with the Solicitor-General, and received assurances that talks would take place with all political parties about how this might happen. I am glad that she reiterated the proposition, which was echoed by the representatives of the three main parties, that having diversity reporting on gender and ethnicity probably made sense to start off with.
There are a number of other problems, however. You will be aware, Mr. Speaker, that just last week the Commons had the opportunity to discuss in Westminster Hall the report from your Speaker's Conference on parliamentary representation. We had a good debate, led by the conference's vice chairman, the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg), and we discussed some of the issues associated with difficulties in identifying candidates with a disability. Sometimes they are unwilling to be identified as disabled, and there are many problems in measuring disability. I therefore think that it probably makes sense to start off with reporting on gender and ethnicity. We can see how that works and whether it drives the necessary change before we consider reporting in other areas.
I want to touch on Lords amendments 93 to 95. For the avoidance of doubt, I must tell the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) that we will not support his motions to disagree with the Lords in their amendments 93 and 94 if he presses them to a vote.
We were very pleased that the Lords passed these three amendments, as we believed that the Government were narrowing the scope of the exemptions available to religious organisations. The Government said that that was not their position, but we thought that it was, so we can all be happy-we have changed the Bill, which the Government now say does what they intended in the first place.
In Committee, the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) pressed what is now Lords amendment 95 to a Division. We supported him and, although we were unable to win, I am pleased that these three amendments were moved in the House of Lords by my noble Friend Baroness O'Cathain. With her assistance, we were able to get support there to change the Bill, and I know that the Government have made the commitment that they will not try to change it back in this House.
It is worth noting that the bulk of Labour and Liberal Democrat peers voted not to change the law. Support came predominantly from Conservative peers, Cross Benchers and a number of the Lords Spiritual. Colleagues-certainly on our Conservative side of the House- may wish to let religious organisations in their constituencies know who stuck up for them when necessary in the upper House.
Mr. Harper: From a sedentary position, the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon asks about the gay communities in constituencies, but these measures are not purely about sexual orientation. For example, they allow a Church to require that a married priest conduct himself in accordance with his marriage vows and not be unfaithful to his wife. The measures are not about sexual orientation at all. To be fair, that was how the matter was reported by many of the news organisations, but that was not what they were about.
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