Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Simon of Highbury) moved Amendment No. 111:

Page 77, leave out lines 24 to 26.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Meston, who is not in his place on the Liberal Democrat Benches--

Lord Razzall: My Lords, he is a judge now.

Lord Simon of Highbury: My Lords, thank you. I need eyes in the back of my head. I wish to thank the noble Lord, Lord Meston, because during Committee stage he tabled an interesting amendment which had been inspired by the decision of the Court of Appeal in the case of Carver v. Saudi Arabian Airlines. In that case, the employee's contract of employment, at the time it was made, required her ordinarily to work in Saudi Arabia. As a result, when she was dismissed she was deprived of the redress she sought through an employment tribunal, even though by that time she had worked in the UK for four years. In turn, the Government have been inspired to take the matter further and bring forward this present group of amendments.

We have been considering the operation of Section 196, which limits the operation of the Employment Rights Act 1996 to employees who ordinarily work in Great Britain. It is a complicated section, the result of several consolidations, some relating to legislation at least a quarter of a century old. After careful consideration, we have concluded that the complexities are unnecessary. International law and the principles of our own domestic law are enough to ensure that our legislation does not apply in inappropriate circumstances. There must be some proper connection with the UK first, and in such cases it is right that UK law should apply.

Other legislation has no need of such restrictions. We believe that now is the time to simplify the provisions in line with our commitment to simplify and improve regulation, which my noble friend the Minister mentioned a moment ago. Furthermore, repealing the section has a number of other significant advantages. It ensures that we are fulfilling our EU obligations, which

8 Jul 1999 : Column 1090

in some circumstances mean that European-derived rights should apply to individuals working abroad who may not currently be covered. It extends employment rights to employees temporarily working in Great Britain and thus implements some of the provisions of the posting of workers directive which otherwise would require further regulations later this year.

It also means that people like Mrs Carver, who had worked for some years in the UK but was nevertheless excluded from claiming under the Employment Rights Act 1996, will be able to rely on the protection of our legislation as should be the case. I do not claim that the amendment will have drastic effects in practice. Very few cases like Mrs Carver's arise, and the additional costs to employers will be minimal. Nevertheless, it takes forward an important principle and modernises and simplifies our legislation.

We are taking care of the special position of seafarers. Special provisions already apply to them under existing Sections 196 and 199. We will ensure that the amendment to Section 199 maintains their current position, if necessary through a technical adjustment at Third Reading.

The new clause grouped with the amendment I have moved, makes a parallel change to the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, removing the territorial restrictions in that Act on rights to be consulted about mass redundancies. The other amendment is a purely technical change to powers in the 1992 Act to extend rights to offshore installations. Currently no procedure is specified for making the order. The amendments will provide for negative resolution in line with that in the Employment Rights Act 1996. I hope noble Lords will join me in welcoming this group of amendments. I beg to move.

Lord Razzall: My Lords, I shall try to clarify the interchange that just took place. My noble friend Lord Meston no longer sits on the Liberal Democrat Benches because he has become a judge and has joined the Cross Benches. Having said that, I know that I speak on his behalf in thanking the Minister for making those concessions.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville moved Amendment No. 112:

Page 77, line 41, leave out ("for domestic incidents") and insert ("under section 57A").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Baroness Young moved Amendment No. 113:

Page 5, line 12, at end insert--
("( ) This section shall not apply to an employer who shows that to comply with it would conflict with his religious beliefs and conscience.")

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the amendment and the related Amendment No. 116 are concerned with a matter of conscience. They are not difficult to understand and the issue has been debated in another place. They are tabled at the request of the Plymouth

8 Jul 1999 : Column 1091

Brothers. I should perhaps start by saying that I do not belong to that organisation. However, I understand the sincerity of their religious beliefs.

The Plymouth Brothers have asked me to say how grateful they are for the care and sympathy they received following written and other representations made during the passage of the Bill. They are asking for freedom to practice their religion as they believe appropriate.

The Plymouth Brothers are a small community. They run some 1,200 businesses, mainly small ones, and they employ some 6,500 people--all but 2,000 of whom are members of the organisation. They are generally regarded as very good employers, but they do not believe that it is appropriate for trade unions or employees associations to intervene in industrial relations.

When the Minister in the other place replied to similar amendments, he said that,

    "the Government cannot accept that the religious freedom of employers, who are, after all, free to choose whether to employ others and how to arrange their affairs, should take precedence over the rights of individuals to form and join trade unions for the protection of their interests".--[Official Report, Commons, 30/3/99; col. 993.]

This raises an awkward point, to which I drew attention when the Human Rights Bill was going through the House, as to what should be done when the rights of two groups of people clash as each group is entitled to certain rights. That is the situation with which we are confronted. It is appropriate that the rights of those with deeply held religious convictions should be considered.

It is rather disingenuous to say that all employers are free to employ whoever they wish. Of course an employer will not take on someone that he does not regard as appropriate, but one cannot be certain in any business where you may not require to employ someone who has specialist skills but who is not a Plymouth Brother. So I do not think that that argument entirely stands up.

I would be very worried about the final argument the Minister used. He said there was a danger that any religious exemption would be a loophole through which unscrupulous employers would seek to exploit the Bill. If one thing is absolutely clear about the Plymouth Brothers, it is that they lead a highly disciplined and different life from almost everyone else. The idea that anyone, unless he was prepared to lead this kind of life, could just join in simply does not stand up.

It is worth reminding the House that the Plymouth Brothers have important features of their conscientious beliefs. They arise out of an innate belief of what is morally right or morally wrong. It is not based on a whim or a fancy or on personal or political preferences but on what is perceived to be a moral principle. It is a deep conviction, not a shallow or a superficial one. A person holding it would feel that it was his duty to do so. It is durable, being held with a degree of tenacity and consistency over time, and it is held regardless of any question of personal advantage or disadvantage. One has only to look for a short period of time at the

8 Jul 1999 : Column 1092

kind of lives the Plymouth Brothers lead to realise that the idea that other organisations could somehow claim an exemption on this ground simply is not true.

I very much hope that the Government will view the amendment with sympathy. It is a very real point; it is a matter of human rights; and it is a difficult situation. But I do not think that such an amendment could be exploited by other organisations in different circumstances. We have a duty to consider minorities and to make sure that their interests are protected. I hope that the Government will look at the amendment sympathetically. If the wording is not quite right, I shall be more than happy to take the amendment away and reword it. I am speaking on a very real point of conscience and one which I think the House will recognise as being unlike any other situation. One cannot imagine any other employer claiming this exemption unless he had these beliefs. I beg to move.

6.45 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I support the amendment. I was particularly moved by what my noble friend said about the features of real conscientious belief. I believe that in this society we should be tolerant and make exceptions for the really genuine religious beliefs of our fellow citizens. I am proud when I think how much this country does to welcome people of different ideas, to be tolerant of them and to accept them. I say that as someone who comes from a minority religion and as a grand-daughter of four people who were persecuted in different countries. I find standing at the Dispatch Box in the House of Lords very moving. I believe that our people really are tolerant and do their very best to accommodate the ideals of all the different religions.

The idea that anyone would invent a device to avoid legislation such as this, particularly in following a religion like the Plymouth Brothers, which is a difficult religion to follow, is nonsense. It would be taking avoidance tactics to the extreme for someone to invent a whole new religion just to keep the unions out of his business. The Plymouth Brethren are an established and well respected sect. It may well be that some people consider their views and practices somewhat quirky, but their views are genuinely held. No one could claim to be a Plymouth Brother without following very rigorous requirements, including the banning of radio and television and not being able to join in any associations. Only last week my husband was out to dinner. In the course of conversation the gentleman with whom he was friendly told him that he had just taken over a business in Plymouth. Indeed, it was a business that had been owned by the Plymouth Brethren. My husband's friend told him that he was amazed when he discovered that his whole sales force in the business had cars but had taken the radios out of the cars because the Brethren did not allow them.

It is impossible for the Brethren to deal with the unions in this way, but I cannot imagine that the whole trade union structure would come crashing to the ground if the Government were able to accept the amendment and show some acceptance of the views of the few members--it would not be many--who might be

8 Jul 1999 : Column 1093

involved. My noble friend said that it might be the case that her amendment could be better worded. Perhaps the Government could take the amendment away and look to find some accommodation in order to help people who have a deeply held religious view. I support my noble friend.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page