Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment No. 28, tabled in my name which forms part of this grouping.

In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, confirmed that being appointed to the agency in one position would not bar a person from being re-appointed in any other. He referred me to Schedule 1 and assured me that paragraph 2(1) provides that,

In other words, there could be re-appointment in any other position. I beg leave to disagree with the noble Lord's interpretation, though he will no doubt tell me that I am wrong. I must remind noble Lords of the quote mentioned by my noble friend Lord Rotherwick regarding how the courts decide the meaning of the "words used". I agree with my noble friend. If the required words are not used, the courts could be forgiven for taking a different meaning from that intended.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, we return, yet again, to matters of devolution. As the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, pointed out, we debated the purpose of Clause 33 very fully in Committee. My noble friend Lady Hayman explained then that the clause was in the Bill to deal with the unlikely possibility that Scotland or Northern Ireland might want to withdraw from the agency, or some of its functions, at some stage in the future--as, of course, would be possible under the devolution Acts.

As my noble friend explained in Committee, if Scotland or Northern Ireland opted out of the agency, it would clearly no longer be appropriate to have a member of the agency appointed by the devolved authority in Scotland or Northern Ireland. This is precisely the sort of reason why we need to have Clause 33. I can fully assure the noble Lord that the clause is wide enough to cover the question of appointments. Subsection (2) says:

    "Her Majesty may by Order in Council make provision (a) modifying this or any other Act as She considers necessary or expedient".

That would clearly involve modifying the appointment provisions as set out in Clause 2 and Schedule 1.

28 Oct 1999 : Column 453

Therefore, neither of these amendments is necessary in legal terms. Indeed, the width of Clause 33 would enable us to deal with any situation that might arise. However, I should tell the noble Lord that I believe that this is rather hypothetical, as the devolved authorities have said that they wish to have a UK agency.

Amendment No. 28, tabled in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, deals with a slightly different point on appointments, which was addressed in Committee. I should make it clear that we do not want to exclude experienced members from the agency simply because they have filled one term of office. That is why we specified that, after holding office, members are eligible for re-appointment.

We believe that the amendment is unnecessary. In specifying that former members of the agency are eligible for re-appointment, it is implicit that they are only eligible for re-appointment to the posts that they are eligible to fill. There is no need to specify that in the Bill. For example, there is absolutely nothing to stop anyone who has served one term as a member from later being appointed chairman or deputy if he or she is the best person for the job. I hope that I have reassured the noble Baroness on that point.

Lord Rotherwick: My Lords, I listened with great care to the reasonable assurances given by the Minister on Clause 33. In that light, I shall look again most closely at them. In the absence of support from other noble Lords, I feel that I must beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

7.45 p.m.

Clause 43 [Short title, commencement and extent]:

Baroness Hayman moved Amendment No. 27:

Page 24, line 9, after ("6(2)") insert ("and (5)").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving this amendment I shall speak also to government Amendment No. 30. I hope that I do not raise the suspicions of the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, if I say that these are technical and drafting amendments, similar to amendments made for Northern Ireland in Committee.

I apologise to the House for bringing forward such amendments at this late stage, but, on further study, Northern Ireland colleagues felt that it was necessary to make some further amendments to the provisions of Part I of the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985, as they apply to Northern Ireland, in order to ensure that the situation there is consistent with the powers available in Great Britain. As I say, I regret that we have to make such technical changes on Report, but they are simply to ensure consistency. I recommend the amendments to the House. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

28 Oct 1999 : Column 454

Schedule 1 [Constitution etc. of the Agency]:

[Amendments Nos. 28 and 29 not moved.]

Schedule 5 [Minor and consequential amendments]:

Baroness Hayman moved Amendment No. 30:

Page 37, line 6, leave out from beginning to end of line 13 and insert--
("(5) In section 25(2) (application of Act to Northern Ireland)--
(a) before paragraph (a) there shall be inserted the following paragraph--

"(za) in section 1(2), in the definition of "designating authority", for the words from "in relation" (in the first place they appear) to the end there is substituted "means the Department of Agriculture for Northern Ireland;"

(b) in paragraph (a), after the word "reference" (in the first place it appears) there shall be inserted the words "in Part III".

This sub-paragraph shall come into force on the passing of this Act.
(6) In section 25(2) as amended by paragraph (5)--
(a) for paragraph (za) there shall be substituted the following paragraph--
"(za) in section 1(2), in the definition of "designating authority", for the words from "in relation" (in the first place they appear) to the end there is substituted "means the Department of Health and Social Services for Northern Ireland";
(b) in paragraph (a), for the word "paragraph" there shall be substituted the words "paragraphs (ab) and"; and
(c) after paragraph (a) there shall be inserted the following paragraph--").

On Question, amendment agreed to.


Lord Carter: My Lords, as the Unstarred Question will now be taken at the end of today's business rather than during the dinner hour, the time for the debate has been extended from one hour to one-and-a-half hours. Therefore, the time for speakers has also been increased. The timings for my noble friends Lord Ahmed and Lord Bassam remain at 10 minutes and 12 minutes respectively, while the time for other speakers is increased from three minutes to six minutes. However, if any noble Lords have prepared three-minute speeches and wish to avoid the inconvenience of doubling their length at short notice, I am sure that the House will understand.

Religious Discrimination

7.47 p.m.

Lord Ahmed rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they intend to extend to the rest of the United Kingdom legislation which applies in Northern Ireland against religious discrimination.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have put down their names at such short notice to speak on this Unstarred Question. This debate is overdue, as there are many faith communities

28 Oct 1999 : Column 455

in Britain who feel that they are second-class citizens because the law does not protect them in England, Scotland and Wales. While the enactment of the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Acts 1976 and 1989 is praiseworthy in itself, it has created an embarrassing anomaly, with religious discrimination in the employment sphere being unlawful in only one part of the United Kingdom. I am aware that there are complications in relation to the Northern Ireland legislation. However, I am using that as a basis for my debate tonight.

In an historic decision, an industrial tribunal in Sheffield--Precision Services Ltd, Rotherham--decided in 1991 that direct discrimination against Muslims on religious grounds is outside the scope of the Race Relations Act 1976 because, in the tribunal's view, Muslims were neither an ethnic nor a racial group to be covered by the Act.

The three pieces of legislation including the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, the Race Relations Act 1976 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 currently deal with discrimination on the grounds of sex, disability, racial discrimination, racial abuse and racial harassment, which, regrettably, are a fact of life for many citizens.

Incitement to racial hatred is a criminal offence, but if the harassment, abuse or incitement is based not on colour, race, nationality, ethnic or national origin but on religion there is no law and no protection, as last year's High Court decision regarding Merton Council's attempt to secure legal protection for Muslims from certain members of the British National Party has demonstrated. It is clear that at present a religiously motivated attack is not regarded by the law as an aggravated offence. There is in fact no "legal uncertainty" as to whether the law regards Muslims, who come in all colours and from all ethnic backgrounds, as a racial group. It does not and could not.

The House of Lords made a decision, which I welcome, that Jews and Sikhs constitute a racial group and are entitled to protection under the Race Relations Act. They can be defined by their ethnic as well as their religious identity. So a black Jew from Ethiopia, a white Jew from Russia and a brown Jew from Lebanon are all treated as belonging to the same ethnic race for the purposes of English law, whereas black, white and brown Muslims from exactly the same countries are not.

Evidence published by the Runnymede Trust in its report Islamophobia--a challenge for us all clearly shows that the law is inadequate to secure the objective of an inclusive and pluralist society. Your Lordships may be aware that the Commission for Racial Equality and the Muslim Council of Britain have been calling for a change in the law in respect of discrimination on the grounds of religion and incitement to religious hatred.

28 Oct 1999 : Column 456

The previous Home Secretary, Michael Howard, argued that,

    "there is little evidence of discrimination against individuals on religious rather than racial grounds, but I can assure you that the Home Office remains ready to look at any evidence".

I hope that the Home Office will have examined the evidence which is set out clearly in the Runnymede Trust's report and also representations made by the Commission for Racial Equality, the MCB and various faith communities and organisations.

Last year Mr. John Austin MP introduced a Private Member's Bill in another place to make religious discrimination unlawful in employment and in the provision of goods, facilities and services, and to make provision for appropriate enforcement. The Bill also proposed new offences related to incitement to religious hatred. Unfortunately, because of lack of time the Bill was not pursued. In his speech in March 1998 he said:

    "Hatred of Islam has existed in western cultures for several centuries, but it has become more explicit, extreme and dangerous. It is an ingredient of all sections of our media, which means that many Muslims are frequently excluded from the economic, social and public life of the nation".--[Official Report, Commons, 3/3/98; col. 860.]

According to the Asian Times this week, another mosque was burned down in Portsmouth by an arson attack last week. A few weeks ago I met a young Asian barrister in Bradford who is unable to get a pupilage or training contract because of his beard. There are scores of people who have difficulty in obtaining permission from their employers to celebrate religious festivals like Eid and Diwali. There are dozens of women who have been discriminated against because of the dress they wear.

There is no protection from or deterrent against religious discrimination under domestic English law. And yet religious discrimination, whether blatant or disguised, gross or subtle, is experienced, as with racial and sexual discrimination, by many people, not only by Muslims but also by followers of other faiths.

I accept that simply passing a law against any form of ignorance does not in itself dispel such ignorance, although it may well eventually help to have that effect. Ignorance can only be defeated by wisdom. Arrogance can only be repulsed by humility. Covering up the truth can only be overwhelmed by making the truth clearly apparent. Tyranny can only be conquered by justice. I accept that there will be those who will never understand the feelings of their victims. Therefore the arguments for legislation outlawing religious discrimination are broadly the same as those for legislation outlawing racial discrimination. First, a religious anti-discrimination law would be a powerful symbol of public policy and would convey the important message that religious identities are valued and respected throughout society. It would acknowledge that Britain is now a multi-cultural and multi-religious society.

Secondly, there must be consistency. Just as we have in Northern Ireland the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Acts, we should also have protection for the citizens living in mainland Britain. I accept that

28 Oct 1999 : Column 457

defining "religion" is difficult, but difficulties are no argument for not acting in the interest of justice in our society. The fear that obscure and extremist cults will define their own practices as religious in origin and will make the judicial system vulnerable by having to pass judgments on such difficult terrain is unfounded.

I would like to propose a very simple criterion: a religion is "that system of beliefs and activities centred around the worship of God which is derived in whole or in part from a book revealed by God to one of His messengers". This definition is wide enough to include all denominations: the Jews, the Christians, the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists and the Sikhs. It will exclude cults.

I remind your Lordships that it was the courts that defined "race" after the 1976 Race Relations Act and not the state. Similarly, we can leave it to the courts to decide on a definition of "religion". If a definition of "God" were also needed, perhaps "the source and sustainer of the universe and all that exists" would suffice.

My final point regarding reform can be justified on the basis of moral argument centred around current notions of equality, fairness and justice. As a nation, if we are going to have an inclusive society, we need to ensure that there is statutory recognition of the fact that Britain is now a multi-cultural and multi-religious country.

7.58 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, for initiating this important debate. The Church of England, and indeed other Christian denominations, take very seriously the difficult experience and wounded feelings of particular groups, especially some of the Muslim community, who feel that they suffer discrimination which is not picked up in race legislation. Where the existing law is clearly inadequate to meet these problems, we are in principle in favour of fresh legislative provision.

The words of the Unstarred Question refer to legislation in Northern Ireland. Legislation on religious discrimination was first introduced by the Northern Ireland Constitution Act in 1973. Subsequently there has been more specific legislation, particularly relating to unemployment. The operation of the 1976 and 1989 Acts was reviewed by the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in July of this year. While making it clear that discrimination cannot be ended by legislation alone and acknowledging that there have been failures as well as successes, it nevertheless asserts--and here I quote--

    "We are reassured by the general view from all the witnesses we heard that unlawful employment discrimination on the grounds of religious belief and political opinion appears to have declined".

The situation that we are dealing with in this country is, of course, different from that in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless I suggest that the lesson to be drawn from Northern Ireland is that the right legislation can make some difference.

28 Oct 1999 : Column 458

At the moment too little research has been done to indicate the extent of the problem with which we are dealing. Therefore we look forward to the results of the research commissioned from the University of Derby on this subject. What we know is that many Muslims feel discriminated against. The study by the Policy Studies Institute published in 1997, Ethnic Disadvantage in Britain: The Fourth National Survey of Ethnic Minorities, is extremely revealing. Respondents who reported discrimination were asked whether they thought the refusal of the job or jobs was on account of their race or their religion, or was due to both of these. Very few thought that it was a result of their religion alone. However, a quarter believed that the refusal was for a mixture of reasons to do with their race and religion. In fact over 40 per cent. of South Asians, evenly spread across ethnic and religious groups, believe this combination of reasons to be operative.

Moreover, younger South Asians were more of this view than the older age group. This suggests that for South Asians the concept of racial discrimination is of a more complex character than it is in many equal opportunities policies, in which it is assumed that racial discrimination is unfair treatment simply on the grounds of colour. For example, whereas only 15 per cent. of people of Caribbean origin thought that discrimination was due to a mixture of race and religion--in their case 75 per cent. thought that it was due to race alone--39 per cent. of people of Pakistani/Bangladeshi origin thought that it was due to a mixture of religion and race. Some 38 per cent. of Hindus thought the same, as did 44 per cent. of Sikhs and 39 per cent. of Muslims. This is obviously a complex picture but it is clear that racism and hostility to particular cultures or particular religions can merge and reinforce one another.

Clearly a great deal of thought is needed on how this can best be tackled from a legislative point of view. As I said, if appropriate, workable legislation can be enacted, we on these Benches certainly support it in principle. If legislation is thought appropriate, the technical difficulties should not be regarded as insurmountable. There is of course a very proper debate about what would count as a religion--as the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, has already indicated--and whether it would be possible to have a definition that could work in a court. The Church of England staff group that has been working on this subject holds the view that when the courts are left to work out a definition of terms such as "religion" or "religious belief" which have been left undefined by the legislation in which they appear, the judges have in fact been able to do so. Similarly, they have been able to deal with cases where the sincerity or strength of an individual's religious belief was called into question. As a result there is already case law on the subject in various contexts in this country, as well as from the Commonwealth and US courts, including decisions on Bills of Rights and similar legislation and decisions on, for example, the European Convention on Human Rights.

28 Oct 1999 : Column 459

However, the existence of English case law could itself present problems, given that it is arguably less well developed and some of the decisions are arguably less satisfactory than those from, say, Australia. But if there is a problem that can and should be tackled by legislation these difficulties could be overcome. I very much look forward to hearing the Government's thinking on this important issue.

8.3 p.m.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, for his extremely interesting introduction to this extremely difficult subject. I think I find myself in almost total agreement with what he said. I also find myself agreeing with much of what the right reverend Prelate said. It must be a record in my five years in the House to find myself agreeing with both the Labour Party and the Bench of Bishops. However, we may find something to disagree about in what I have to say. I shall not try to cover the same ground as either of the previous speakers.

Religion has been a potent source of division and hatred down through the ages. It has potential for generating disagreements over the tiniest of things which can lead, and have led, to members of my religion murdering their very close cousins in very large numbers. I suspect that the same is true of the Muslim religion. One can hope that we are moving towards--and should make efforts to move towards--a time of religious tolerance and lack of discrimination. But there are times when it is right to discriminate on grounds of religion. Religion is not like disability or race or gender; it is something which a person chooses. My brother-in-law has chosen to become a Muslim. It is not something he was born to; it is an individual choice he has made. As such it says something about him; it gives him a particular set of characteristics which may or may not be acceptable in certain circumstances.

The main people who, to my mind, are justified in discriminating on religious grounds are the religious themselves. For instance, there is a very widespread practice in this country, and indeed in Northern Ireland, where certain schools are only open to members of certain religions. That seems to me to be acceptable. I do not find it comfortable but none the less it seems to me something we should permit. In Northern Ireland it goes perhaps a little further than it should and causes long-term division in that society. But where it is relatively gentle and where the schools are relatively scattered, it seems to me reasonable that people of profound religious belief should be able to have their children brought up alongside members of their own religion and not mixed in with others. It is an important stage of a person's development.

There are also occasions where particular religions will want their food prepared by members of the same religion. Again that seems to me reasonable, although when you find yourself on the wrong end of that and someone whom you have been working with closely refuses to break bread with you because he considers you unclean, it is not a particularly pleasant experience. None the less it appears to me reasonable

28 Oct 1999 : Column 460

that the religious should be allowed to pursue that belief even if it hurts the rest of us. I would consider it reasonable, if I was employing someone to help bring up my children, to discriminate as regards the religion of that person if I cared what beliefs my children were going to absorb in the course of their experiences with that person. I would certainly wish to exclude some of the "kookier" sects from that position.

It also seems to me that I do not wish to be obstructed in any way from arguing extremely strongly on the subject of religion. I want to be able to argue bitterly with Catholics about their opinions on birth control and to do everything I can to obstruct the effect that I believe that has on world population and the health of the planet. I want to be able to argue on almost everything with the noble Lord, Lord McNair, and to do everything I can to obstruct his beliefs. I do not wish to be halted in that because I think that it is reasonable, within the law, to have views on what scientology is. I do not think that one should feel that one is cut off by the law from expressing opinions in debate and in any other reasonable way that results from religious feeling.

Given the premise that there is acceptable religious discrimination and, as the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, has so clearly shown, a lot of unacceptable religious discrimination, with a pretty grey area between, it is a very hard area for legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, proposes that we limit the religions we apply non-discrimination to. That is certainly one way ahead although there are some Christian sects that are pretty unappealing in their beliefs. The right reverend Prelate discussed the prospect of leaving it to the judges to reflect the feelings of society about what religion is. Perhaps that is a way ahead.

As an alternative perhaps we could look at the question of making the area subject to an ombudsman--someone able to investigate a particular case in all its complexity, local nature and individuality and produce a report which, as ombudsmen in this country have shown, is likely to be taken up by most of those who have a care for their position in society, such as government, major corporations and local government. That might, over time, have a clearing effect on what was considered reasonable and what was considered unreasonable when it came to matters of religious discrimination. That might allow us in the end to legislate in a way which would not cause offence and outrage when people felt their reasonable expressions of opinion and discrimination were being outlawed.

8.10 p.m.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, for introducing the debate.

There is no dispute that we live in a multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-religious society. We now have human rights legislation arising from our international obligations; and, following the Stephen Lawrence inquiry report, we have the Government's commitment that race relations legislation will be reviewed. The question we need to ask in practical

28 Oct 1999 : Column 461

terms is how relevant this legislation will be as far as concerns our diverse community in Britain, particularly when religion is at the centre of such issues.

The public recognition of the importance of religious identity to many of our citizens must be translated into legislation in order that discriminatory treatment on grounds of religion is treated on a par with other factors, such as race, colour or ethnic origin.

I am well aware that the situation here is different from the situation in Northern Ireland. On this particular point, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, will not disagree if I suggest another way in which to incorporate such legislation in statute. In the short time available to me, I will resist the temptation to elaborate on the situation in Northern Ireland and to compare it with the situation in this country.

I do not advocate extending the Northern Ireland pattern of legislation to the rest of the United Kingdom. That legislation is related mainly to employment practices. I have in mind a different approach, a much wider approach, a more holistic approach in all the areas covered by the race relations legislation.

I am delighted that my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill was at one time adviser to my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead when he was Home Secretary. They were pioneers as far as concerns race relations legislation. I shall be interested to know whether at the time of the legislation any consideration was given to the inclusion of religion as a part of the strategy.

There has been a general acceptance from as early as 1968--I have just been referring to some of the parliamentary debates which took place during that time--that when the second Race Relations Act was passing through Parliament, its declaration was confined to discrimination simply on racial grounds; or, to be precise, treating others less favourably on the grounds of race, colour, nationality or ethnic or national origins, as the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, said.

However, the Act does not outlaw discrimination against a group of persons defined by reference to religion. If, however, one looks at the declaration of human rights, it includes religion among many other forms of discriminatory behaviour. Therefore, I have no hesitation whatever in supporting an amendment to race relations legislation which would extend the scope of the definition of discrimination to include religion.

The interpretation of ethnic origin in the Race Relations Act has created an anomaly. For example, the Sikhs are a racial group but the Muslims are not. In its judgment in the Mandla case the House of Lords held that although ethnic origins have a good deal in common with the concept of race, "ethnic" was used in the Race Relations Act in an appreciably wider sense than the strictly racial or biological sense.

A group can be defined by reference to its ethnic origin if it constitutes a separate and distinct community by virtue of characteristics which are

28 Oct 1999 : Column 462

commonly associated with common racial origin. On the basis of this construction, the Sikhs qualify as a group defined by ethnic origins but the Muslims do not.

Islam is one of the great religions of the world. There is now a growing awareness of increased anti-Muslim prejudice and discrimination. I do not wish to spell out details; there is enough research evidence available on this issue. I am aware that the Government have commissioned research to determine the extent to which religious discrimination occurs. We shall certainly await the outcome with interest.

Anti-discrimination laws represent key markers of public policy. To put religion on a par with race, sex and disability would convey the important message that religious identities are valued and respected throughout our society. It would also be evidence of our religious tolerance.

Today, I visited the Millennium Dome with some of your Lordships. How nice it would be if the section dealing with different faiths was to reflect our religious tolerance, incorporated in a legislative framework.

In response to the Macpherson Report, the Home Secretary has accepted the need to strengthen the race relations legislation. We have to develop a shared sense of national identity and a concerted determination to reduce discrimination in its various forms. Religious values are personal and deeply treasured by almost all communities. To deny a section of our community the right to enjoy its religion is a blot on our society. We should never put communities into a position where they have to hide their treasured beliefs to achieve equality. Religious tolerance and the eradication of religious discrimination must, after all, be a sign of our civilised values.


Lord Warner: My Lords, I am grateful, too, to my noble friend Lord Ahmed for raising this issue and for giving the House an opportunity to debate it.

I rise to express some scepticism. I have always been a strong supporter of using legislation to prevent discrimination on the basis of race, gender and disability. I have huge sympathy for the feelings expressed and explained to the House by my noble friend Lord Ahmed. But we should exercise considerable caution before extending legislative protection of the kind that exists in the areas of race, gender and disability to the area of religious belief. We would not be able easily to produce legislation that protects only Muslims. It would need to be extended to a range of religious beliefs.

We should bear in mind that we live in a largely secular society. Research published in the 1999 edition of Social Trends shows that UK Church membership, as measured by active adult members, is approximately 8 million out of an adult population of approximately 45 million. With great respect to those who have strong religious beliefs and support faith-based systems, we must take account of other people's views and their ability to challenge all belief systems in a free secular society. There would be many who would

28 Oct 1999 : Column 463

see legislation providing protection on the basis of belief systems as a move towards a context of inhibiting people's rights to criticise and to free expression.

I accept fully the need for racial and religious tolerance. The European Convention on Human Rights, now enshrined in the Human Rights Act, provides full protection for individuals to pursue and practice their personal religious beliefs. That is as it should be. But I doubt that we should go further for two practical reasons.

First, my noble friend mentioned the issue of cults. It will be extremely difficult to produce a legislative definition of "religious discrimination" that does not protect cults inappropriately. We know from the work of the Information Network on New Religious Movements that there are approximately 2,000 religious cults in Europe. Many are small; some are innocuous; some are less so. There exists a considerable history of cults preying on vulnerable people, breaking up families and obtaining large sums of money from gullible and vulnerable people.

Some cults pose as religions. For example, I recall that some years ago the Court of Appeal ruled against the recognition of the Scientologists' so-called "chapels" and "ministers". The German Government have taken a very strong line in regard to Scientologists. If we produced legislation in the area of religious discrimination we would see more of this kind of approach, and that would inhibit any government of the day from taking action against inappropriate cults.

Secondly, I should like to touch on the difficult issue of when it may be legitimate to discriminate against somebody in employment and otherwise on the grounds of their religious beliefs. I do so as someone who has been a director of social services and has had to bear those issues in mind when dealing with employment relating to children. It may well be right not to approve somebody as an adoptive or foster parent because their strident and excluding religious beliefs would work against the best interests of a child. One may well have to remove the head of a children's home because he or she seeks to impose their beliefs on vulnerable children in their care. School governors may well think it inappropriate in a multi-cultural society to appoint a head teacher with obtrusive beliefs in a particular religion. These are all real situations that people would have to grapple with in the world in which we live if there was strong employment legislation to prevent people from exercising their judgment when they thought that strong religious beliefs were being used inappropriately in an employment context.

I shall not echo the point raised by my colleague, the noble Lord on the Benches opposite, on the subject of Catholicism and contraception. However, there could well be circumstances such as in a family planning clinic where it would be inappropriate to appoint someone who adhered to beliefs that made them unable to carry out their job. These are just a few practical examples of the problems that I believe

28 Oct 1999 : Column 464

legislation preventing some degree of discrimination on the basis of religious belief would cause in the workplace.

The situation in Northern Ireland is special. The tribal badge of religion has been used to do terrible things within that society. I can well understand why the Government have acted as they have in terms of legislation on religious discrimination in order to break out of the straitjacket of the past. However, I suggest that the situation in England, Scotland and Wales is not the same, and for the reasons I have outlined, I hope that the Government will think very carefully indeed before extending that legislation outside Northern Ireland.

8.22 p.m.

Lord Monson: My Lords, anyone who has met the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, or heard him in action, knows what a sincere, thoughtful and moderate individual he is. I regret all the more, therefore, that I believe that his aims, in this instance, are misconceived for a number of reasons.

First, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lawson of Blaby, speaking on Monday, when he said that there are many,

    "who believe that positive discrimination is a can of worms".--[Official Report, 25/10/99; col. 4.]

That applies whether positive discrimination is formal and overt, as it is in one or two parts of the world, or, as it has to be under our existing laws in the United Kingdom, informal and semi covert. The bureaucratic burdens on businesses in Northern Ireland are bad enough, but just compare Larne in County Antrim with Leeds in Yorkshire. The Larne employer has only to try to establish over a period of time a rough balance between Catholics and Protestants, based on the respective proportion of Protestants and Catholics in a particular area. In the case of Larne, that may mean that a workforce must comprise around eight Protestants to every two Catholics. In Leeds, employers would have to try to apportion their workforce between Anglicans, Methodists, Roman Catholics, Jews, Hindus and Muslims, and probably Baptists and Seventh Day Adventists as well.

As for stirring up religious hatred, that is already effectively illegal under existing laws relating to assault, including verbal assault and harassment. I believe that there have been very few prosecutions for such an offence under the more specific Northern Ireland law since its introduction. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that when he replies. If I am right in that assumption, it is not surprising, since antagonisms in Northern Ireland are essentially political rather than religious, even if the insults shouted when people spill out of a pub on a Saturday night might suggest otherwise.

Secondly, anti-discrimination legislation normally applies only to characteristics that people cannot change: race; sex; age (albeit not in Britain); permanent disability; and so on. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and the noble Lord, Lord Warner, pointed out that it is not normally considered right to apply such

28 Oct 1999 : Column 465

legislation to voluntary affiliations like religion, philosophy or political opinion, which would open up an even greater can of worms than that warned against by the noble Lord, Lord Lawson. As I understood him, the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, suggests dividing religions into approved and unapproved religions, rather as happens in Germany. That is totally alien to our traditions. No doubt the noble Lord, Lord McNair, will have something to say about it when he comes to speak.

Moreover, much religious discrimination is more apparent than real. Over 20 per cent of the prison population in England and Wales is Roman Catholic, even though Catholics comprise only 10 per cent of the population as a whole. Some might unthinkingly assume that that must stem from religious discrimination, but clearly it does not. Apart from a tiny handful of errant priests, neither the police, nor the DPP, nor the judiciary will have any idea whether a defendant is Roman Catholic or otherwise. So whatever the explanation for this phenomenon, it clearly has nothing to do with religious discrimination.

For more than 45 years I have known an extended Indian Muslim family, both in this country and in India, spanning three generations. Although we do not see each other more than every few years nowadays, they remain the greatest of friends. At least a dozen members from different generations have worked or studied, and sometimes both, in this country at various times, starting in the early 1950s. As far as I know, none of them has ever suffered religious discrimination, certainly not in this country. Latterly, things are a little difficult for them in India because of the rise of extreme Hindu nationalism, but they have never suffered discrimination in Britain. I think that their secret was that they all individually resolved, without in any way compromising their religious beliefs, to try their best to do in Rome as the Romans do. That, I am sure, was the key to their success and contentment in this country.

8.27 p.m.

Lord Haskel: My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lord Ahmed on introducing this debate, but I am not sure that I can agree with him. However, this is a disagreement amongst friends.

I know a little about discrimination. As a child I came to the United Kingdom as a refugee to escape religious discrimination. Like my noble friend, I support the 1976 Race Relations Act, and I recognise that there are special circumstances in Northern Ireland. What concerns me is the effect of the law of unexpected results in this case.

My concern is that extending the Northern Ireland regulations will slow the changes that are taking place in our religious life today. I think that these changes are happening as a result of greater understanding, of greater tolerance, and a spirit of ecumenism. This breaking down of the barriers between religions is leading to an inevitable increase in marriages, partnerships and friendships between people of

28 Oct 1999 : Column 466

different religions, and movement between religions. I like these changes. They are a sign of a real multi-racial and multi-religious society. Indeed, at the synagogue of which I am a member, to make such people feel more welcome, we have a special category of affiliate membership for non-Jews and for their children.

My concern is that should the Northern Ireland regulations be extended, the law of unexpected results will mean that religions will become fixed and categorised. Religious purity will become legalised, and the growing tolerance and understanding being shown towards those in mixed relationships and mixed friendships, and those like the brother-in-law of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, who are intrigued with other religions, will become more restrained. I do not want religion to become fossilised in law. I want the law to facilitate tolerance and understanding. These changes reflect the multi-religion society in which we actually live, and I welcome them. That is why I cannot support my noble friend Lord Ahmed.

8.30 p.m.

Lord McNair: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, for introducing this debate. However, I have to say that this is one of those occasions when one's prepared speech goes out of the window. I was quite amazed by the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. He had every right to make it and I would fight to the death for his right to do so. But he has never done me the courtesy of asking me about my beliefs or discussing them with me. In fact, I find it extremely difficult to accept that he has any idea what I believe. The kind of unthinking bigotry that he has expressed gives rise to discrimination and, therefore, to the kind of discussion that we are having tonight.

I turn to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Warner. The Chapel Case, as it has come to be known, of which I assume he has made an exhaustive study, did not refer to the religiosity of the particular group concerned; it referred to whether that building was used for religious services. That is a very different thing, as the noble Lord who is to reply will be aware.

I was interested in the mention by the noble Lord, Lord Monson, of the situation in Germany. I agree with him about the idea of having official and non-official religions. The noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, will know that in Germany the Lutherans, the Catholics and the Jews are official religions and are able to advertise on television. The Muslims are not. There is a problem if one happens to be on the wrong side of the line. I made a considerable study of the situation in Germany. I was interested to find out whether one particular group was in the cross-hairs of the German bureaucratic machine or whether other religious minorities were. I discovered that the Germans organise this by having official bodies. They try to control their religious minorities through these official bodies. I met the leader of the Jewish Council in Germany, who has now passed away. I also met an impressive Muslim leader--the leader of the Muslims in the Berlin area--who had tremendous problems because he would not toe the line.

28 Oct 1999 : Column 467

I am still amazed by the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. I do hope that at some stage he will do me the courtesy of discussing my beliefs with me. To dismiss someone without any discussion or knowledge of their beliefs is bigotry.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page