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6 Apr 2010 : Column 934

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): It is curious that the Government have not taken the opportunity to close the existing loophole on siblings' ability to inherit, for example. A similar loophole in respect of gays and other minorities has been closed, and that is welcome, but does my hon. Friend know why the Government did not use this Bill to extend such rights to siblings? There is great support on both sides of the House for closing that long-standing loophole.

Mr. Harper: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question, although I do not think that it affects any of these amendments. I understand her concerns, given the advent of civil partnerships: family members of people involved in such partnerships have not been able to understand why they cannot take advantage of inheritance tax rules. That is what I think that she is referring to, although I do not think that this Equality Bill is the right place to address her perfectly good questions. Perhaps they should be addressed elsewhere, and I am sure that she will raise them in future debates.

I shall draw my remarks to a close by saying that we welcome this group of amendments. If the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon presses any of his amendments to a vote, I am afraid that we will not support him.

Dr. Evan Harris: First, I can assure the House that we will not press my amendments to a vote so, if they trust me, those hon. Members who are hanging around can relax. However, they all seem to be staying, which I guess is fair enough.

It is interesting to hear the Conservatives say they generally support the Bill.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): I don't.

Dr. Harris: I suspect the right hon. Lady speaks for a large number of her colleagues in the country as a whole. However, the Conservative Front-Bench speakers say that in general they do not oppose the Bill, and I believe them. They do not oppose it, because it is not a radical Bill. As the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) made clear, it is mainly a reorganising Bill, and it has missed huge opportunities to be much more radical. The Government cannot say both that the Bill is radical and that the Conservatives who support it are anti-equality. In many cases, the Conservatives are anti-equality, but the Bill is not the test that shows it-except in the three areas mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. It is unfortunate that even though the Bill was amended in the Lords it is not as strong as it could be in many respects.

10.30 pm

I should like to press the hon. Member for Forest of Dean on the question about the shadow Home Secretary. If the shadow Home Secretary does not think the Bill should be changed, was he advocating that the law be ignored-an unusual position for a shadow Home Secretary-when he said that people should be able to exclude other people on the basis of sexual orientation? I fear that question will go unanswered.

We welcome Lords amendment 1. Members may recall that Liberal Democrats in this House first raised the issue. We did not have a great welcome from the
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Minister in Committee, but on reflection in the Lords, and thanks to the work of Lord Avebury and Lord Harries of Pentregarth, among others, the Government were persuaded to compromise, so we have a provision that is welcome as far as it goes.

There were a number of amendments on equal pay, including on comparators. The Government have accepted amendments proposed by my noble Friend, Lord Lester-or that they tabled following discussion with him. Those amendments are welcome because they improve the equal pay situation. However, we regret the fact that the pay audit provisions in the Bill are still weak, because we were unable to get a majority for amendments in the Lords, despite our best efforts. Of course, the Conservatives think that even measures requiring companies to carry out audits at a certain point go too far, which says a lot about the Conservative commitment to equality.

I particularly welcome Lords amendment 29, the Government's concession on pregnancy in schools. The issue was raised in Committee in the House of Commons and I am pleased that the Government were persuaded that it was wrong not to make it explicit in the Bill that pregnant schoolgirls should not be exempted from some of the equality laws. That is important.

We welcome Lords amendments 34 to 38, which deal with diversity in the range of candidates. I endorse what has been said about the work of the Speaker's Commission in that respect.

I have sympathy for the Government's position, as expressed in the House of Lords, on civil partnerships on religious premises. It is not ideal to use the Equality Bill to change civil partnerships from being the equivalent of a same-sex civil marriage. The introduction of language about religious buildings or religious services would mean that there was no longer a read-across between civil marriage and civil partnership. The most effective way of dealing with what I recognise is a legitimate wish of people to have a religious aspect to their civil partnership would be to provide for same-sex marriage and amend the Marriage Acts. My party has been very clear: we think society has moved on sufficiently for the Government and the House to take a lead on that. It happens in other jurisdictions, and it is unfortunate that the Government will, as I suspect, leave office after 13 years without having been able to make an advance in that respect. Things are now made more complicated, in terms of what is civil about civil partnerships, by the fact that that had to be the necessary compromise.

Lords amendment 84 is the extra provision that the Government included. The reason why I express concern about that Lords amendment, especially as it relates to religion and belief, is to ensure that we have as much freedom of speech and expression as possible for religious people. The House has resisted, as has the House of Lords- rightly-a free-standing provision on harassment on the grounds of religion and belief in the delivery of services. Yes of course, in employment it is right and proper to have such a provision, but outside employment there are real concerns that if one enables people to take harassment proceedings on the basis of feeling that their dignity has been infringed or that they have been exposed to an offensive environment-that is the terminology of harassment law-it would mean that, for example, Christian hotel owners who display a poster, crucifix or some such thing in the public areas of
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their business where their customers will see it might well find themselves open to complaints that people are being harassed.

The Solicitor-General: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Harris: I will give way in a moment.

I know that such things are not covered by this provision, but I am concerned that it introduces such an offence by the back door, and will encourage such action by people who are over-sensitive to statements or expressions of belief by people who have strong religious feelings. Although I may not agree with the strong exposition of religious belief, I am second to none in my concern that that freedom of speech should be protected. If the Solicitor-General wants to intervene, as she indicated a moment ago, I would be grateful if gave an assurance that it is not her intention to include a harassment provision.

The Solicitor-General: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to intervene. He is utterly wrong, but he knows that, because he said this about six times in Committee, and I have told him six times that he is wrong. The case law is incredibly clear. For the sixth time, let me say that it is called Driskel v. Peninsula Business Services, and the Employment Appeal Tribunal made it clear that where the facts simply disclose hypersensitivity on the part of the applicant to conduct that was not perceived by the alleged discriminator as being to their detriment, there is no discrimination. I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman is terribly wrong.

Dr. Harris: We could not have had this discussion in Committee, because the provision in Lords amendment 84 was introduced on the last day in Committee in the House of Lords and was never debated in Committee in this House.

The Solicitor-General: That is completely wrong as well. The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that we had this very same debate on about 15 different amendments all the way through our consideration in Committee. Forgive me, but he is verging on the disingenuous by pretending that this is something new. It clearly and totally is not.

Dr. Harris: The suggested words, which appear in what would be clause 210(5) if we accepted the amendment, are completely new. At no point, because no hon. Member supported a free-standing religious harassment provision, was this debated in Committee. It was not even fully debated in the House of Lords. That is a symptom of what we have seen in the passage of this Bill, which is being rushed through at the very end of this Parliament.

Mr. Cash: I have crossed swords with the hon. Gentleman on a number of occasions in relation to religious susceptibilities. Is he saying that he believes that-quite rightly-Christians who wish, for example, to wear crucifixes round their necks should be entitled to do so in circumstances of the kind that he describes? Will he be quite explicit about that?

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Dr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman invites me to make a distinction-I am happy to do so-between people's ability to express their religious views wherever and whenever in employment, which, as the Court of Appeal has said, can be legitimately restricted without its being either direct or indirect discrimination. I urge him to read the Court of Appeal's judgment in the case of Eweida from beginning to end, because it is absolutely clear on that point, but that is separate from what should concern all of us: the possibility of people who use a service-whether a public service or, particularly, a commercial service-taking offence at someone's expression of religious views. We cannot have that, and despite the Minister's normal bluster, she has not explained why, if this measure was not necessary, it has been brought in. A problem will be created when people read that the fact that there is no provision on harassment on the grounds of religion

It might well be that a detriment is a higher threshold than that for a harassment claim, and that is dealt with in detail in an article by Michael Rubenstein in the March 2010 Equal Opportunities Review, which I commend to the Minister. The article points out, inter alia, that the threshold is not greatly different, and I am worried that even hypersensitive people whose cases would fail in the first instance will bring forward such cases because of sensitivity.

Mr. Cash: Much of the law in this area is based on matters that arise from the European convention on human rights and the Human Rights Act 1998. Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the strictures that the Lord Chief Justice gave in his speech to the Judicial Studies Board on 17 March about judges who were overindulging their enthusiasm for human rights law? Perhaps this is yet another example, and just as the hon. Gentleman suggested that I should read the case in question, I suggest that he might like to read what the Lord Chief Justice said only a few days ago.

Dr. Harris: I shall do that; we will have some time off for good behaviour in a few days. However, I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman, of all people, does not know that law in this area is framed by a European Union treaty to which we are signed up-

Mr. Cash rose-

Dr. Harris: I do not wish to go into that area, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker.

I want to draw my remarks to a close by dealing with the final area of concern: Lords amendments 93 to 95, and especially Lords amendments 93 and 94, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) and I have tabled motions to disagree. In normal circumstances, I would seek to press those motions, but in resisting the Lords I am-unusually for me-merely backing the Government's position. The fact that the Government are not backing their own position is a sign that they have run out of the time, if not the energy, to say to the Lords that it is not acceptable for them to remove the proportionality requirement. That requirement is in the directive, and it should be made clear. It is extremely disappointing that
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Parliament is saying that it is acceptable for someone such as a youth worker in a church to be sacked because it is found that they are gay, even though they are doing a perfectly good job, and that there need be no proportionality.

John Mason (Glasgow, East) (SNP): I must challenge the hon. Gentleman on his use of the word "acceptable". Many churches and religious organisations think that what they believe and what they do are inherently tied together, and it is impossible to say that someone is doing a job acceptably if they are working against the beliefs of that organisation.

Dr. Harris: There is a fundamental problem. It is absolutely right that religious organisations should have the exemption for jobs that the Government tried to set out clearly in paragraph 2(8) of schedule 9, which Lords amendment 95 removes. The Government amended the original poorly framed provision to make it even clearer, and it stated that the right to discriminate should be restricted essentially to priests and people who directly teach scripture. Youth workers, however, do not do that, and it is wrong to destroy the career of someone who has devoted their life to helping children purely on the basis of their sexual orientation when that has nothing to do with the delivery of their job.

It is unfortunate that the Government are facing infraction proceedings even on the existing measure, after we removed their attempt, as they put it, to clarify. The Government are right and the Conservatives are wrong about this being a sufficient narrowing of the exemption. That is why we opposed it. We thought the exemption should have been narrowed somewhat. The fact that the Government ended up being defeated on a measure that did not achieve what it should have achieved shows that this part of the Bill has been badly handled.

At this stage of the Parliament and at this hour, it is inappropriate to seek to divide the House on these matters, but I hope it is clear that the Liberal Democrats believe that although this is a good Bill, and that many of the measures in it are welcome, it could have gone much further in achieving the equality that many of us say we want to see, and which many of us believe is needed.

10.45 pm

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I shall speak to amendment 1, and welcome the Government's acceptance of the Lords amendment. The background to it has been described, but the process started with representations received by a number of us from constituents and organisations such as the Dalit Solidarity Network and a series of temples across the country, led by the Shri Guru Ravi Dass temple in Southall, where representations were made to us about some of the horrendous implications of caste discrimination transposed from the Indian subcontinent to this country.

The matter was raised on Second Reading by Members across the House, and debated in Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) tabled an amendment to outlaw caste discrimination immediately. The Government were not convinced that there was sufficient evidence, so I tabled an amendment that would give Ministers the power to
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outlaw caste discrimination when they became convinced of the evidence. That was taken up in the Lords and has been accepted by the Government.

It is rare for a Back Bencher-certainly for this Back Bencher-to convince the Government about an amendment to a Bill, and I am grateful that they accepted this one. I am grateful for the co-operation that we received from the Front Bench and the flexibility that has been shown. The legislation will tackle discriminatory practices in this country which have scarred the lives of many people, and continue to do so, in all their activities in our society. The Minister said that the report could be produced within months. There will be further consultation on the basis of the evidence in the report, and the measure will be subject to an affirmative resolution of the House.

One of the issues in the first round of consultations was that the scope of those consultations did not extend to the wide range of organisations that represent the victims of caste discrimination. The consultation largely took into account the views of organisations representing some of those who have been involved in caste discrimination. I urge upon the Government, and subsequent Governments, the need for care. When the evidence report is produced, there should be thorough and exhaustive consultation with a wide range of organisations, particularly those such as the Shri Guru Ravi Dass temples, that represent people in our society who have hard and solid experience of caste discrimination over generations.

I hope that a speedy report can be brought to the House through the affirmative resolution procedure, and that at long last we can put into our unwritten constitution laws, such as exist in the written Indian constitution, that will outlaw caste discrimination once and for all, and give some protection to those who have suffered from it for generation after generation.

John Mason: I echo the welcome that has been given to the Bill. It is a good Bill, and it is good that it will get through before Dissolution. There was room for improvement, and some has been achieved via the House of Lords. The inclusion of caste is welcome, and on other matters the Government have given the assurances and the clarification that were sought in Committee and elsewhere. On employment, we certainly want employers to get the best person for the job, but I welcome the restrictions on what they can ask before people are appointed.

I am happy to agree with the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) that many measures are not as strong as they could have been, and I agree that the Bill could have been stronger on many issues. It could have done with a purpose clause, as we said in Committee, and with guidance on how the courts are to deal with conflicts between different protected characteristics. As we also said in Committee, there is some concern among religious schools that when there is a conflict between two different protected characteristics, religion comes last. I accept that in Committee the Solicitor-General gave an assurance that that was not the Government's intention, but it would have been good to say so in the Bill.

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