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Race Relations (Religious Discrimination) Bill [H.L.]

7.3 p.m.

Lord Ahmed: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

The issue that I raise is one that should have been resolved during the last century. It must certainly be resolved in this one. It is the issue of religious discrimination. It is unacceptable that, whereas the principle of religious toleration has been legally established in the British Isles for the past 150 years, religious discrimination is nevertheless still legally practised and tolerated today. That is why I place this Private Member's Bill before the House. The Bill seeks to extend the ambit of the Race Relations Act 1976 to include discrimination on grounds of religion.

All that needs to be done to include religion as an additional ground for proving discrimination by way of differential treatment is to insert the words "or religious" after the word "racial" whenever it appears in the wording of the Act, and to insert the words "or religion" after the word "race" wherever it appears in the Act. I appreciate that the wording of the Bill in its present form is not complete, but it can be perfected. In the meantime, the principle and intent are simple and clear.

I begin by pointing out that it is misleading to assert that the provisions in the Race Relations Act 1976 regarding indirect discrimination can be successfully invoked in their present form when dealing with cases of religious discrimination. They cannot. They can be invoked only in cases where there is also an element of racial discrimination. Even then, it is necessary to prove that the discrimination was intentional before compensation can be awarded. If my proposal is accepted, this lacuna in the law will cease to exist and those who are discriminated against on grounds of their religion will then be able to seek the justice which at present, I regret to say, they are denied in the courts of this land.

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I hasten to emphasise that my Bill is concerned with religious discrimination, not philosophical or ideological discrimination. I am simply concerned with establishing some measure of protection for people who are discriminated against because they worship God, by whatever name they know God. At present, such discrimination is not against the law.

The Human Rights Act 1998, which is due to come into force in October 2000, inter alia, guarantees the right to practise one's religion, whether alone or in a group, and to educate one's children in accordance with one's religion. It is nonsense to assert, as some do, that the Act goes only so far as to acknowledge such rights, and no further. A right that can be ignored and trampled over with impunity and without liability, where loss is caused as a result, has not been secured; and until it is secured, it is no right at all—it is a mockery of justice.

When I addressed the House previously on this issue in autumn last year, some noble Lords were quick to point out the possible difficulties in defining "religion", "worship" and "God". They raised philosophical issues as regards the status and rights of those who have a belief system but who do not believe in God. They also raised the spectre of obscure and possibly evil cults seeking to shelter behind the law that I propose: for example, those who practise Satanism. These issues have already been considered by learned judges in court, especially but not exclusively in the context of the law governing charities.

For example, in the case of Regina v Registrar General, ex parte Segerdal and Another, Lord Denning, may he rest in peace, concluded in 1970 that "a place of meeting for religious worship" denotes somewhere that is used principally as a place where people come together as a congregation or assembly to offer reverence to God. He stated that,

    "It need not be the God which the Christians worship. It may be another God or an unknown God, but it must be reverence to a deity ... Turning to the creed of the Church of Scientology, I must say that it seems to me to be more of a philosophy of the existence of a man or life, rather than a religion. Religious worship means reverence or veneration of God or of a Supreme Being. I do not find any such reverence or veneration in the creed to this church".

These basic concepts and principles were then considered in greater detail in 1978 in the case In re South Place Ethical Society Barralet and Others v Attorney-General and Others. In his judgment, Mr Justice Dillon stated, inter alia:

    "In a free country ... it is natural that the court should desire not to discriminate between beliefs deeply and sincerely held, whether they are beliefs in a god or in the excellence of man or in ethical principles or in Platonism or some other scheme of philosophy. But I do not see that that warrants extending the meaning of the word 'religion' so as to embrace all other beliefs and philosophies. Religion, as I see it, is concerned with man's relations with God, and ethics are concerned with man's relations with man. The two are not the same, and are not made the same by sincere inquiry into the question: what is God? If reason leads people not to accept Christianity or any known religion, but they do not believe in the excellence of qualities such as truth, beauty and love, or believe in the platonic concept of the ideal, their beliefs may be to them the equivalent of a religion, but viewed objectively they are not religion ... It seems to me that two of the essential attributes of religion are faith and worship; faith in a god and worship of that god."

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In applying criteria such as these, our learned judges have already broadly established the differences between a religion and a philosophy, and between religion and ethics. I have not quoted from their judgments at great length, but, as I understand it, they have already established that where Buddhism and Hinduism are recognised for the purpose of English law as constituting religions, Scientology and freemasonry are not. The list is by no means exhaustive. But the point I wish to make is that our learned judges have already proved themselves well capable of ascertaining what constitutes "religion", "worship" and "God" with accuracy, clarity and consistency. I can see no reason why they should not remain able to do so in the future.

Accordingly, it is my view that theoretical difficulties in dealing with obscure sects or philosophies should not be used by the government of the day as a blocking device to justify denying a large number of the members of the mainstream religious groups in this country the protection under the law to which they are entitled. The courts can deal with such imagined difficulties if and when they actually arise. British citizens should be free to worship God by whatever name they call God without being penalised or discriminated against because of this.

Nor should it be a precondition to legislation that it will not be promulgated until the intensity or quantity of incidents involving religious discrimination have reached a certain degree or level. If such criteria were to be applied across the board it might then be argued that murder should not be regarded as a criminal offence because it occurs relatively infrequently as compared with the incidence of armed robbery. In both the Torah and the Qur'an it is stated that if even one person is killed unjustly then it is as if all mankind had been killed.

As far as Muslims are concerned, there is no doubt that they follow a major religion whose primary purpose is worship of the Supreme Being. There is no doubt that some Muslims have been and are being discriminated against because of their religion. There is no doubt that at present there is no law in the United Kingdom, with the exception of Northern Ireland, that protects against religious discrimination. The same applies to the followers of other major religions.

If a person is protected against discrimination because of the colour of his or her skin, why should that person not also be protected from being discriminated against because of the colour of his or her religious beliefs and practices? Those who implausibly argue that the law should only be skin deep should ask themselves what kind of justice there would be if our judges only considered the actus reus and not the mens rea.

Furthermore, as far as Muslims are concerned, the practices which tend to trigger the discrimination to which they are subjected in, for example, the employment sector are already well known and well documented. Apart from blind prejudice which requires no prior reason or justification for it to be expressed, Muslim women are sometimes

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discriminated against if they dress modestly and cover their hair. Muslim men are sometimes discriminated against if they wear a beard. Both Muslim men and women are sometimes discriminated against if they pray during their lunch or tea breaks, or if they fast during the holy month of Ramadan. These are not phenomena that are disputed. They are referred to almost daily in the media. They have been and are being researched in the groves of Academe. The Runnymede Trust has done significant work in this area. The research project being conducted at the University of Derby is a step in the right direction. While the experts debate and while the academics ponder, ordinary people suffer unnecessarily.

I find distasteful and obnoxious the argument that asserts that British Muslims who are discriminated against because of their religion should count themselves lucky if they only face ridicule and unfair dismissal in this country, when further east in the Balkans and the Caucasus the penalty is often rape, torture, imprisonment and even death. Whatever form such acts of discrimination on the grounds of religion take, whether extreme or not, there is no lawful justification to permit legally such acts to take place.

I also hasten to add that the proposed amendment in the Race Relations Act 1976 that I am seeking to introduce by means of the Race Relations (Religious Discrimination) Bill 2000 will afford protection not only to Muslims but also to the members of all the other major religions. In that sense it is a generous proposal, not a narrow one.

It is also a proposal that seeks to assist the government of the day to fulfil their obligations and duties under international law. The United Kingdom is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights and has passed the Human Rights Act 1998 in order to incorporate the Convention rights into its domestic law. Once the Human Rights Act 1998 is in force, the government of the day will be under a duty, by virtue of Article 1 of the Convention, to secure, by passing secondary legislation where necessary, the rights guaranteed by the convention by providing an "effective remedy" in the English courts "without discrimination on any ground". If they fail to do so, the Government will then be in breach of Articles 1, 13, and 14 of the convention and, unless any such breach is remedied, will eventually and inevitably find themselves before the Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg. As regards race discrimination, the Government have fulfilled their duty and are at present in the process of extending the ambit of the Race Relations Act 1976 further. As regards religious discrimination, however, the Government have up to now not yet fulfilled their duty. My proposal will help the Government to do so.

For example, the Human Rights Act 1998 will not protect a while Muslim who is refused employment or denied promotion or dismissed from employment because he or she prays at midday during the lunch break or wears a beard or hijab. What kind of justice is this? Is such a state of affairs really acceptable?

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Is it right that the media should be prevented from ridiculing and attacking people because of the pigmentation of their skin but can with impunity promote inaccurate stereotypes of those who follow a particular religion and even present them as the enemy? Freedom of speech should not be demeaned by using it as a pretext for freedom of abuse, especially when such abuse can so easily incite others to indulge in more physical and frightening forms of attack.

Perhaps we can learn a lesson from more enlightened European countries which not only incorporated the provisions of ECHR into their domestic law years ago but have underpinned those rights by passing secondary legislation. For example, in Austria it is not legally permitted to discriminate against someone because of his or her religion. In that country politicians can be removed from office for doing so. The same is true of Germany, where there is already in place a mechanism whereby each of the major religions has recognised representatives who can present to the Government the concerns of their respective communities. The example and experience of those countries demonstrate that such laws are not difficult to formulate precisely or to implement equitably. That is why my Private Member's Bill is not, and does not need to be, lengthy.

In conclusion, I quote the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, in this House last autumn:

    "The fundamental question raised, with great power, cogency and eloquence by the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, and the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, is the problem of Islamophobia. It is the problem of how to give British Muslims the right to effective remedies for arbitrary discrimination and unequal treatment of the kind that people like myself have if we are discriminated against as Jews on racial grounds.

    "I personally find it strange that I should have a remedy if I am discriminated against on racial grounds but, for example, the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, should not have a remedy if he is discriminated against on religious grounds. When, as an officer in the Army, I experienced discrimination, I could never tell whether the anti-Semitism was on racial or religious grounds. Other noble Lords have referred to the complications, as did the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford in his important speech.

    "There surely has to be an effective legal remedy for the wrong of religious discrimination as well as the wrong of racial discrimination. I suggest that those who raise technical objections to the framing of legislation should concentrate on the need for a legal remedy for British Muslims that is as effective as that which exists for other minorities in this country. That is the pressing social need that must be addressed".—[Official Report, 28/10/99; col. 470.]

I endorse the penetrating words of the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill. The noble Lord is to speak in today's debate and I look forward to hearing his contribution.

I believe that the Private Member's Bill which I promote will go some way to address a pressing social need by providing an effective legal remedy for discrimination, whether it be racial or religious or a combination of both. I am sure that the courts will apply it judiciously. I commend the Race Relations (Religious Discrimination) Bill to the House and seek

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the support of noble Lords in carrying it through to the next stage.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Ahmed.)

7.24 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Bradford: My Lords, living and working in Bradford, I share many of the concerns voiced by the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, and in principle I support his Bill. In so doing I pay tribute to the remarkable work that he has done over many years, not least in the north of England and Yorkshire, in promoting harmony and good relations between people of many religions. That is something for which the noble Lord has earned gratitude from a great many people.

There is much anecdotal evidence of religious discrimination, but legislation cannot be built on anecdotes. I believe that it is a wise step, which is much to be commended, that the University of Derby has been asked to carry out the research which it is now undertaking. I and many others look forward to reading its report, which it is hoped will emerge in the autumn of this year. If we are to have legislation, we must have firm grounds on which to base it. This is a very complex area and I do not believe that we shall make haste very quickly, but it is worth taking the care and worth doing.

I should like to make a contribution from the point of view of practical day-by-day experience in a city like Bradford. I believe that legislation is a desirable step, but it will not in itself remove religious discrimination. As the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, is perfectly well aware—better than I—in Pakistan there is a blasphemy law that is meant to protect people of all religions. Sadly, it is all too frequently abused to try to solve petty disputes in villages. There is a man called Ayub Masih who has been in prison for a very long time and has the death penalty hanging over him. It is not known when that will be resolved. In 1997 I and some friends visited Shanti Nagar, where some appalling riots had taken place. We were told that they had arisen from a trivial abuse of the blasphemy law. I know that the Government of Pakistan wish to change the law and that there are extremists who make life difficult. I do not cite that example to criticise another country but to point out that sometimes even a law with good intent can be greatly abused by those of little principle. Education and openness to change must go hand in hand with legislation; otherwise, we shall not make very real progress.

Nor is discrimination always inflicted by the majority on the minority. Just after the Lawrence report appeared, statements were made which suggested that racial discrimination was inflicted by the majority on the minority. That is not true. We need to keep in perspective that discrimination can be inflicted by anybody on anybody else for racial and religious motives.

I am also aware that there is low-level harassment (as it is termed by the chairman of the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia of the Runnymede

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Trust), such as spitting and abuse of that kind, because of a person's religion. I regret to say that my wife and I have been spat at by people who are not Christians. I have received a report of a women who walked innocently through the streets and was told that she was a white whore. We want to remove discrimination everywhere and ensure that nobody on any grounds indulges in racial discrimination for whatever reason.

Yet another complication arises from what is sometimes referred to as positive discrimination. It is said—I do not for a moment support it because I do not have any evidence—that on occasions the police may decline to press charges against somebody because they fear a backlash from extremists in a religious group. We must also work against that kind of discrimination so that the law is applied without fear or favour.

If we are to promote legislation—I believe that there is reason for so doing—we should at the same time take practical measures to encourage better relationships between people of different religions and thus, step by step, remove the possibility that people will resort to religious discrimination.

Perhaps I may tell your Lordships about one or two simple steps in Bradford to that end. Shortly after I arrived there eight years ago, I received strong representations from Muslims who alleged racial and religious discrimination in employment. I invited people in industry and commerce to meet me. I certainly did not presume to tell them what to do, but many were able to offer examples of good practice. Along with legislation, I believe that we need to offer encouragement that comes from spelling out what good practice is and what is already being achieved.

In your Lordships' House a week or two ago, I was able to welcome the appointment of a Muslim adviser in prisons. That is a major step forward. When I became Bishop of Maidstone in 1987 and went to Maidstone Prison, it was the Anglican chaplain who sought to find an imam who would care for Muslim prisoners. There are good examples of people of one faith who strongly support others. If one has the misfortune, because of illness but for no other reason, to go to the Bradford Royal Infirmary or St Luke's Hospital, one will find that successive chaplains have built up a team of pastoral visitors some 60 or 70 strong which comprises Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jews and Christians.

If we are to have legislation, we must have good practice which tries to prevent such discrimination alongside the legislation which punishes the discrimination. As I shall say one or two words which may be regarded as being critical of the Bradford Metropolitan District Education Authority, perhaps I may say that the Bradford Metropolitan District Council has a prayer room in the city hall which is open to people of all faiths. If noble Lords believe that that is an excuse for providing it for Muslims, were the Bradford Metropolitan District Council to have the misfortune of having me as an employee, I should be there at midday every day to say my prayers as a

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Christian. I believe that that is a small but enlightened step that encourages people of different faiths and tries to prevent discrimination.

I mentioned education because it cannot be removed from the scene. Problems with education fuel religious discrimination in a city such as Bradford. With regard to the 1999 GCSE results where five or more A to C grades were achieved, the national average was 46.1 per cent. In Bradford the figures were: whites, 34 per cent; Pakistanis, 21.8 per cent; Pakistani males, 16.7 per cent; females, 27.8 per cent; white males, 29.9 per cent; females, 38.1 per cent. Those are simply the statistics. However, the tension and suspicion surrounding education and the feeling that one has under-achieved, that one is of no use, and so on, are in my view a major contributor to unease between people of different faiths and different races. The sooner we are able to address that issue so that youngsters who come from Muslim backgrounds can feel that they achieve and are on a level playing field, the better it will be, and we shall remove yet another reason for religious discrimination.

I make a plea, too, that our policymakers should learn to distinguish between religion and culture. In my view, much religious discrimination comes from ignorance. There is a big difference between what is Islam and what may be Pakistani or Kashmiri culture. Long visits to Pakistan by schoolchildren are culture. That has nothing directly to do with Islam. Arranged marriages with consent are entirely consistent with Islam; forced marriages are contrary to Islam. I believe that we should be very careful when those who are not Muslims refer glibly and easily to the marriage practices of those who are Muslims. We can easily get it wrong and cause a great deal of offence.

Halal meat is Islam; curry is culture, as is fish and chips. Noble Lords may believe that that is a trivial remark, but I am told that in the schools in Bradford most of the Muslim children go for fish and chips and most of the white children go for curry. It is a rather trivial matter but when one talks about another faith it is important to know what one is talking about. Much of the abuse that causes offence comes out of ignorance.

The mosque culture and the school culture need to be helped to come together. At the moment they pull away from each other. Children learn by rote, perhaps from an imam who speaks little or no English, and then go into an entirely different culture in a school. If we can begin to address that, we shall begin to remove some of the causes of religious discrimination.

I hope that noble Lords do not feel that I have deviated too much. I want to support the idea of legislation. However, I want to make the point firmly that I fear that that in itself will achieve very little unless we address the underlying causes. When we do that and follow the example of the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, over many years, we really shall make progress and perhaps the legislation will be little used.

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