Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The Lord Bishop of Southwark: My Lords, perhaps I may take the opportunity to say that when Hansard is published your Lordships will note that I did not imply that position either. I spoke about a sexual orientation, not a homosexual orientation. That attitude can be applied to heterosexuals, too. I intervene to make that position quite clear. I was grateful for the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow. But I certainly did not wish to convey that homosexuals automatically were involved in that kind of paedophilic activity. That is not the case.

Lord Rea: My Lords, I was about to say that the majority of people who commit sexual offences with children are heterosexual and not homosexual.

We are interested to hear what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark says. We shall be interested to hear what the noble Baroness says. The Government will probably say that education, persuasion and open discussion is the way forward. As we have all predicted what the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, may say, perhaps we should not push the point until she so states.

However, there is no evidence that the Government have assisted in that aim, although, as the noble Viscount said, they have a rather softer position on the topic than in the days of Clause 28 of the Local Government Act 1988.

As in other areas of discrimination, we believe that legislation in some form, however regrettable, as my noble friend explained, is the only way to proceed. First, women (who represent the majority of the population) and men (who represent the other large minority of the population) have benefited by legislation prohibiting discrimination on the ground of gender. Ethnic minorities, representing about 5 per cent. of the population, also achieved anti-discrimination legislation. Now the disabled—possibly representing another 5 per

14 Jul 1995 : Column 2017

cent. or more of the population; it depends on whether one takes the working population or the whole population as one's denominator—are beginning to have their case addressed.

It is time that those of unconventional sexual orientation who make a highly significant contribution to the whole of society, as the noble Lord, Lord Annan, pointed out so ably, through their work, good humour, and creativity, should receive the justice that is due to them. I thoroughly support the Motion that the Bill be given a Second Reading.

4.13 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, this has been an interesting debate on the Bill introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, and it has been valuable to listen to the views expressed. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for the courteous way in which she introduced the debate, and indeed to everyone who has contributed to it. It was interesting that some noble Lords have spoken previously on the subject and I believe that they speak with knowledge.

There can be little doubt that society in general has adopted in recent years a more relaxed and tolerant attitude towards homosexuality. Acceptance of the Wolfenden Committee's recommendation which ultimately led to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967 was of great assistance in that respect. Although the noble Lord, Lord Annan, is not in his place, I was pleased to hear that he made his maiden speech on the subject.

But there are genuine differences of view on this difficult and sensitive subject. As examples, one need only recall the recent "outing" campaign against individuals in prominent positions and the debate which took place on Clause 28 of the Local Government Act 1988. I note the concern of the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, over the whole of that period but I was pleased that he thought that the Government's attitude had softened since then. However, perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Rea, did not quite agree.

The Government's position is clear. We oppose unjustified discrimination against any person on grounds of their sex, race, colour, ethnic origin or for any other reason, irrespective of where that discrimination occurs, be it in a work context or otherwise. Unjustified discrimination is offensive to decent people everywhere and it is to be condemned. Everyone is entitled to equal treatment and, at work, to be assessed on merit against objective criteria, not on the basis of prejudice and stereotyping. The Government's objective is to promote a fair and safe environment by making it clear that unjustified discrimination is morally unacceptable and economically inefficient. We will continue to propound that message.

The noble Baroness's speech may have left your Lordships with the impression that homosexuals do not have any employment rights. It may be helpful to remind the House that the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978 offers a comprehensive set of individual employment rights, regardless of sexual orientation, including the right not to be unfairly

14 Jul 1995 : Column 2018

dismissed and the right to a redundancy payment. Anyone who feels that their rights under this Act have been infringed can, subject to the two-year qualifying period, take their case to an industrial tribunal. That applies to all employees across the board. It is substantial protection. Compensation up to a maximum of £11,000 is available for those unfairly dismissed. The length of the qualifying period for these employment rights is a matter of judgment, but the Government believe that two years strikes the right balance between guaranteeing the necessary rights of employees over the burdens on businesses. Excessive regulation damages job competitiveness and growth in employment opportunities. In addition, the Sex Discrimination Act does not single out homosexuals as a group who are prohibited from bringing complaints. Complaints of sex discrimination can be made by any person.

Perhaps it would also be helpful to draw your Lordships' attention to the recently enacted Section 154 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which makes it a criminal offence to cause intentional harassment. That was specifically introduced to penalise those who cause others alarm or distress through using threatening, abusive or insulting words, behaviour or displays, in particular when the behaviour is persistent in nature. We see no reason in principle why anyone who suffers intentional harassment in any of those ways cannot bring themselves within the protection of Section 154. An offence of intentional harassment can attract a custodial sentence and/or a level 5 fine. Complaints are a matter for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, but we hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, will recognise the potential value of this new offence. She mentioned a particular case of harassment, I believe it was the one in Yorkshire. It is possible that it could be covered by that provision.

The key question is how to promote the message that unjustified discrimination is unacceptable. The noble Baroness argues for the intervention of the law by extending the scope of the Sex Discrimination Act to cover discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and, in support, she cites evidence from Stonewall and one other research organisation. We have read the evidence, but are not persuaded by it.

Stonewall's questionnaire survey was particularly targeted at homosexuals. Fewer than 10 per cent. of the 20,000 people to whom those questionnaires were sent actually replied. Stonewall's report does not explain why so few replied, and while a 90 per cent. non- response rate does not necessarily invalidate their finding, nevertheless one would be entitled to treat them with some caution. It is certainly the case that if the response rate were only 10 per cent. for the Government's New Earnings or Labour Force Surveys, the results would not be published. A third of respondents knew or suspected that they had faced discrimination at work. More than half said that they had never been harassed, and less than a quarter said they had avoided certain jobs to avoid discrimination.

There is additional research by an organisation called Social and Community Planning Research. Its findings, drawn from in-depth research of 735 people, is that two-thirds of respondents thought that there should be

14 Jul 1995 : Column 2019

laws to protect homosexuals but some respondents expressed moral objections to homosexuality and to the behaviour of some homosexuals in public places.

Both organisations believe that their findings provide evidence of the need for legislation. I acknowledge that there are some cases where the treatment received by some individuals left much to be desired in terms of good personnel practice, but I do not think the evidence leads to the conclusion that there is widespread discrimination on the scale necessary to justify primary legislation. Rather than making the case for a change in discrimination law, the results could be said to show that discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation exists but is not the widespread problem that the noble Baroness suggests. In fact, one might conclude that the results highlight a diversity of opinion towards homosexuals.

The noble Baroness also invites the House to accept the proposition that specific legislation is necessary to protect the interests of this group who follow a particular sexual orientation and lifestyle. Were one to accept this principle, then one sends s signal to every group, however small and however narrow or partisan their cause, that they, too, could be candidates for specific legal protection. We urge your Lordships to reject that approach as neither practical nor sensible.

Even if the Government were to support this Bill—and I hope that I have made clear that the Government do not—I have to say that it is unacceptable purely on the method of its drafting. We believe that there is a fundamental flaw which no amount of amending could put right, even if noble Lords had the time to do so. Obviously I am most reluctant to criticise on grounds of style, as every draftsman has his own methods. I absolutely understand the reasons why it was thought desirable to keep this Bill short by incorporating references to the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. However, what is really before the House is a cherry-picking pastiche of extracts from the 1975 Act, with words and phrases being amended here and there. It would be absolutely impossible for a layman to understand his rights under this Bill without reference to another lengthy Act, which would need to be edited to cover the matters to be provided for. In the case of employment legislation, as long ago as the Workmen's Compensation Act 1925, the philosophy was that an employee should understand his or her rights without the assistance of a lawyer.

The Bill is also defective in that it fails to define sexual orientation. I agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark that any definition would have to protect the interests of children. Rather than go down that path, we suggest for moral and business efficiency reasons it is more important to raise awareness of the unacceptability of unjustified discrimination. Wherever prejudice supplants common sense and good judgment, no one benefits. That is the message we must get across. All of us individually share a responsibility to treat others as we would wish to be treated and to speak out against discrimination wherever and whenever it appears. There has been a welcome rise

14 Jul 1995 : Column 2020

in the level of tolerance towards homosexuals in the past 25 years. We need to build on that, but not by trying to make people think differently through force of law.

The noble Baroness suggests that in the Government's eyes homosexuals are somehow a less deserving group compared with women, ethnic minorities and disabled people because we are unwilling to legislate to protect them. That is not the case. The Government condemn all forms of harassment and unjustified discrimination in the workplace. They hope that neither prospective nor existing employees would be treated unfairly for reasons which have nothing to do with their competence to perform their work. The Government's aim, as I said, is to promote a fair and safe environment for work and to ensure equality of opportunity in the workplace. They also aim to impress upon employers the need to adopt employment practices which are non-discriminatory and flexible and which will be in their own and their employees' interests.

The noble Baroness, as indeed the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, also mentioned a number of other countries where homosexuals have protection against discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. The noble Baroness's contention is that the UK is out of step with standards applied elsewhere and that as a result the United Kingdom is less civilised in its approach than our EU partners and the approach advocated by the European Commission. If I understand correctly, the argument is that standardisation of treatment between countries of different social backgrounds and traditions is a sensible policy objective.

The Government do not find that argument convincing. Just because people drive on the right on the Continent does not mean that United Kingdom drivers should do so here. We believe that we should respect one another's traditions and not necessarily follow them slavishly. If other countries wish to give homosexuals protection against discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, that is their business. The Government believe that, subject only to our various international obligations, the United Kingdom should decide whether there should be legislation in this area. There is certainly no Community law about discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. Even when Monsieur Jacques Delors was President of the Commission he said that the Community has no powers to intervene in respect of possible discrimination against sexual minorities.

I believe that today we have done justice to the debate on discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. The Government's position is that they deplore unjustified discrimination and will continue to send out the message that it is morally unacceptable, uneconomic and inefficient. There will be change in the way that homosexuals are treated only when each individual overcomes his or her prejudices and treats others with proper, due and correct respect. The Government take the view that specific legislation to outlaw such discrimination would not command the degree of public support that is necessary for it to be acceptable, given the wide difference of views held in society. I know that

14 Jul 1995 : Column 2021

the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, will not agree with that view because he feels that legislation is necessary. But the Government do not.

Neither is legislation the most effective way to overcome entrenched prejudice. It amounts to a form of coercion to conform. It would add another piece of legislation to an already over-regulated society. The Government believe that the burden of proving the need for legislation rests on those making the case. Strong and compelling evidence is necessary to demonstrate that there is a substantial problem which has to be dealt with. We believe that that case has not been made. The Government prefer instead to persuade, by explaining that we all have a duty and a responsibility to examine our consciences and ensure that in our everyday dealings with one another we act fairly and put to one side the race, sex or sexual orientation of our fellow citizens. I can assure the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, that the Government will continue to encourage greater tolerance; but we do not believe that it would be right to legislate in that regard.

4.30 p.m.

Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who contributed to this short debate this afternoon. It has been interesting and I am pleased that so many of the contributions were in support of legislation and of my Bill. Perhaps I can deal with one or two of the points raised.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark referred to paedophilia. Obviously we are all opposed to paedophilia. My information is that the term "sexual orientation" does not cover paedophilia. It was included in the Bill deliberately because it means protection for homosexuals and so forth. It is an appropriate term. It already appears in a number of equal opportunity agreements signed between unions and employers and everybody seems to understand it.

The Bill proposes a sensible approach. We are limiting it to employment because discrimination exists in employment. Though the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, referred to the Stonewall evidence and was critical of it, there is other evidence from the SCPR and NACAB. When I was in communication with the Equal Opportunities Commission it said that it had been approached by people who believed that they were being discriminated against on grounds of their sexual orientation. It is therefore more widespread than the noble Baroness indicated.

14 Jul 1995 : Column 2022

I was grateful for the Minister's assurance that the Government believe in a policy of tolerance; they believe that discrimination cannot be condoned. Our differences are that we believe that there should be legislation and the Government do not. We believe that there is a case for legislation because discrimination is widespread and because it is not possible, unfortunately, to rely simply on persuasion.

As I said earlier, for a long while it was felt that the disabled could rely on persuasion, but it became clear over the years that some form of legislation was necessary. For many years there was extreme prejudice against women in employment. Arguments were advanced that we did not need legislation; that it would simply entrench prejudice and so forth. But we now know, because we have had equality legislation for well over 20 years, that that legislation was necessary. It had the effect of changing public perceptions as well as bringing about differences in treatment for women in the workplace, though everybody—particularly women—would probably agree that it has not gone far enough. Nevertheless, there has been a major change as a result of the legislation.

The noble Lord, Lord Annan, was not able to stay; he gave me a note of apology. His contribution was extremely entertaining. On the other hand, it seemed to rely on a kind of stereotyping which is not helpful in the present argument. I was assisted in the preparation of the Bill by Stonewall; I am a member of the Stonewall parliamentary group. It is a moderate Bill and not in line with the Peter Tatchell campaign for "outing" and so forth. It follows what I might call a moderate and mainstream attitude to the whole question. In fact, we felt that the Bill was so moderate that it would conceivably attract government support. But I gather that even if the Government supported the Bill, they do not think much of the drafting. All the more reason, I would have thought, to give the right of passage to Committee because, in Committee, amendments can be framed with a view to improving the wording of the Bill.

I wish to press the Motion today and ensure that the Bill has a Second Reading. I strongly hold to the view that legislation is necessary. I believe that the contributions to the debate in general supported that view and the view that discrimination must be dealt with and that this is the way to do it. I commend the Bill to the House.

The Earl of Longford: My Lords, perhaps I may ask whether there is a quorum in the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

        House adjourned at twenty-five minutes before five o'clock.

14 Jul 1995 : Column 2021


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page