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Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, I support the Bill of my noble friend Lord Ahmed, not only for the reasons that he gives and the evidence of discrimination, of which I have also seen unjust and harrowing examples as chair of Camden's racial equality council, but also for another set of reasons. I shall describe them briefly.
They are based on the fact that, quite apart from the essential human rights aspect of discrimination, discrimination is a market failure. To deny people an equal opportunity for a job, a promotion, a contract or an education is to lose out on talent. It is not only the individual who suffers a disadvantage; so do the employer, the contractor and society as a whole.
Moreover, there could be a particularly disadvantageous consequence of discrimination on religious grounds in the UK. As we have heard, that includes substantially discrimination against our Muslim fellow citizens, although it is not limited to them. That is because, while Islam is a minority religion here, in the global context in which we live and trade it is a majority religion. Some of the ancient world religions help to form the cultures of the newer economies. In the United Kingdom we are fortunate to have many personal and commercial links with those economies because of our past history of immigration and emigration. That history was not without pain, even atrocity. However, over succeeding generations it has proved a resource and an opportunityan opportunity to be at home in and thrive in a global world.
No doubt that was one of the reasons why the Foreign Office made a very interesting video entitled "Islam in Britain" for distribution abroad. It shows positively, but not over-rosily, the lives of British Muslims. It shows my noble friend Lord Ahmed being introduced into your Lordships' House, which is a very positive sight. That part of the film was quite rosy too, but that was because of the colour of the film. The film shows, above all, that the UK can have strong ties outside its location on the edge of western Europe.
I suggest that those links would be much enhanced if those who saw the video overseas and who invest in and trade with the UK also knew that we mean what we say when we talk about being a multi-cultural society by outlawing discrimination on the grounds of religion. The UK would not be unusual in doing that;
Taking further the proposal of my noble friend, I express the hope that there could be included in the text of the Bill words to cover those of us whose ethics do not derive from revealed religion. That is the intention of the words "or belief" added after the word "religion" in the relevant provisions of the various international human rights instruments which the UK has ratified and we should try to meet the point.
Baroness Uddin : My Lords, I rise in support of my noble friend Lord Ahmed. I am grateful to my noble friend for his latest efforts and for his Private Member's Bill, which seeks to extend the ambit of the Race Relations Act 1976 to include discrimination on grounds of religion. I wholeheartedly agree with him that the move is long overdue and an essential step towards the emergence of a truly pluralistic, tolerant and just society in today's Britain.
The final justification for any law, as noted by Albert Camus, is the good it does or fails to do to the society of a given place and time. Today's Britain desperately needs a law to protect and redress religious discrimination so that a vast number of its citizens can talk of genuine tolerance and justice.
The amendment suggested by my noble friend would not only reflect the concerns and issues we face today but also greatly contribute towards combating one of the most unacceptable social ills threatening society; that of religious discrimination and intolerance. Like all forms of discrimination, religious discrimination has its pecking order, the most vulnerable being women and children. I referred to that at length when I addressed your Lordships' House last October.
There are too many cases up and down the country of women who have been physically and verbally abused and threatened because of their faith, in addition to suffering discrimination in the field of employment, to which I shall return shortly. Anecdotal or not, the experience of Islamophobia, for instance, is an ugly reality that dangerously wounds, scars and alienates members of the Muslim community. It is the oxygen that fuels both alienation and extremism and cannot be allowed to tarnish and disfigure our society.
I agree with the wise contribution of the right reverend Prelate. However, comparison with other countries such as Pakistan, with the entirely different aspirations, practices and expectations of its citizens, is not appropriate within this context. To my best belief there are no race and sex discrimination laws in place. There may be very good examples in other places. I wholeheartedly agree with the contribution of the right reverend Prelate as regards the impact on education.
That is not only in place in Bradford. I have been talking about Tower Hamlets all afternoon, and this is a matter which readily comes to mind. The continuous unacceptable level of educational achievement remains abysmal and must be addressed. I shall return to that many times in your Lordships' House.
I return to the subject at hand. Lack of recognition of the fundamental role of religion in the lives of people, particularly those from the ethnic minority communities, has had a profound impact, whether or not we recognise it. Over the years it has meant the bypassing of faith communities in securing resource allocation. The perception and understanding of society purely on race categorisation has meant the marginalisation and impoverishment of large sections of the community. For instance, resource allocation for blacks or Asians normally totally bypasses the Muslim community, which is a multi-racial and multi-ethnic community with distinct needs.
I draw the attention of your Lordships to a report published today by the Cabinet Office, entitled Minority Ethnic Issues in Social Exclusion and Neighbourhood Renewal, which totally misses the point on faith-based regeneration. Had this law been in place, that would not be the case. Without the proposed amendment, the legal situation can best be described as necessary but not sufficient. In order that the basic objectives in applying race laws are achieved, laws against religious discrimination must be introduced, and must be inevitable.
Many people feel that they are discriminated against in employment and service delivery because their religious background and practices are not recognised or are simply ignored. In many public sector organisations, people are discouraged from putting their religious beliefs into practice. They are prevented, for example, from taking leave during festivals and on other important religious days. I am not referring to midday prayers, which have been covered adequately.
The present situation also implies lack of recognition and respect. People from many faiths, including members of the Muslim communities, feel their identity is not recognised by law. The situation has been made even worse by the reluctance to include religion in the forthcoming census. During times in which almost all decisions are numerically ledhaving been a local government deputy leader for nine years, I should knowlack of basic statistics will put many faith communities at a great disadvantage as regards resource allocation. The lack of monitoring based on one's religious affiliation has had the effect of making faith communities invisible in today's Britain. That cannot be just or right.
The cost of tolerating an environment in which faith communities feel unprotected and vulnerable cannot be measured in terms of anguish, pain, the deep sense of isolation and the resultant marginalisation.
The suggested amendment to the law would be a major leap in engaging the minority community, as well as ensuring that the Britain of today and tomorrow is a society which genuinely believes in and is guided by the high principle of respecting all people regardless of their background, gender, ethnicity and religion.
The proposed legislation is particularly important also because of its timing. We are at the moment in one of the country's best epochs in terms of having a government, a Prime Minister and a Home Secretary totally committed to confronting the forces of discrimination and prejudice. Not having a law against religious discrimination actually goes against all the basic principles of this Government, who have shown beyond all doubt a commitment towards creating a society that is free and tolerant for all our citizens. If they fail to introduce both the relevant religious discrimination legislation and the religious question in the 2001 national census, it will have a major impact on their credibility with a significant and important part of our community.
"The law", said Martin Luther Kinghimself a man of great faith"does not change the heart. But it does restrain the heartless". It signals to everyone certain standards and values and it states basic terms of debate. In that way, it shapes, as it gives expression to, moral opinions and outlooks.
The legal change for which my noble friend is calling is essential to help crystallise a new climate of opinion which is already present and to bring religion into the terms of debate of what kind of society we want to have in this country. Until and unless such changes have been introduced, Britain cannot claim to be an inclusive and a fair society.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, for introducing this Bill. He was kind enough to refer to some remarks that I made in a previous debate that he initiated on 28th October 1999, and I shall not repeat what I then said. I shall simply summarise my position by indicating that I support the aims of this Bill. I believe that the absence of an effective remedy for the injustice of treating someone less favourably than another on the grounds of their religious beliefs or political opinion is a source of real injustice and that there should be an effective remedy.
I agree also that international human rights law requires the introduction of legislation. The ratification by the United Kingdom, by the present Government, of the ILO Discrimination in Employment Convention No. 111, which I much welcome, is one further indication of the need to do so.
So I have no doubt about the need for legislation. I have no doubt about the aims of this measure. If the proposition were put before the House that the Bill should be given a Second Reading, I would certainly be in favour of it. But the rest of my remarks are designed to urge the promoters of the Bill to think more carefully about some of the underlying problems.
I spent more than two years of my life working on the Race Relations Act and the Sex Discrimination Act as special adviser in the Home Office to my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. I can say therefore that I have real personal experience of the kinds of issue that need to be tackled. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, will forgive me for saying that, even if the right bit of the Race Relations Act was referred to in his one clause Bill, which it is notit is a boring and pedantic pointwe cannot simply amend the Race Relations Act 1976 in the way suggested. I am sure he will be the first to recognise that.
Perhaps I may indicate the problems and make it clear that I am not suggesting that they are not capable of solution. They have been tackled in Northern Ireland in that context, and tackled recently and imaginatively in the Irish Republic, to take only two examples. Such legislation illustrates that the problems are not insoluble. But they are real and I want to raise them now, without wishing in any way to encourage the Minister who will undoubtedly latch on to what I am saying as evidence of the need for further time to consider all these problems, and rightly so.
The first problem is that to discriminate against someone because of their religious belief is not as simple and straightforward as to discriminate against someone because of their colour, race, ethnic origin, sex or gender. To practise racial or sex discrimination is to discriminate against someone for something they cannot control. It is because of their descent, their birth, their genetic inheritance. It is an affront to their common humanity. To discriminate against someone because of their religious belief or, as the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, pointed out, their political opinionboth forbidden forms of discrimination in international law and in Northern Irelandis not to
It is as unfair to discriminate against somebody because they have no faith as it is to discriminate against somebody because they have faith. In spite of what the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, said in relation to his definition of religionI declare a professional interest in that I advised the Church of Scientology about its application for charitable status in the pastBuddhists, who do not belong to a theistic religion, would regard their religion as a real religion, as I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, would himself. The English cases to which he referred as being the golden thread in this area, I am sorry to say, are a tangled web of inconsistent principles in which English judges have done their best to fit in recognition of Buddhism, a non-theistic religion, with the theistic religions of Islam, Judaism, Christianity and so forth.
Therefore, although I do not feel it is necessary to define religion in the Bill any more than the Human Rights Act does, one must recognise that if a Bill of this nature were enacted it would undoubtedly create problems that would have to be tackled in relation to what is meant by religion and religious belief. I share the view of the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, that it would be wrong to cover only religious belief and not, for example, political opinion. That would clearly be inconsistent with our international obligations.
That is the first real problem that needs to be tackled. The second problem is whether it is sensible to amend the Race Relations Act in the way that this Bill does, or whether there should be a separate Bill because of the special problems in relation to religious discrimination. Or, as I would prefer, perhaps there should be comprehensive legislation which covered equal treatment without discrimination on any ground; for example, age, disability, sexual orientation as well as religious belief and political opinion.
I believe that all that is consistent with legislation in other countries. Would it not be sensible, as I have been urging in this House for some time, to have a radical overhaul of our often inconsistent, incomprehensible mess of equality legislation and to have a single effective equality code that included religion? I would argue that that is a difficult ambition to achieve but one that would be worth the attempt.
The next problem is whether the grounds should be confined, as in this Bill, to religion or whether non-theistic religions and political beliefs should be covered? Should such legislation be confined to employment, as was originally the case in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, or, as I would argue, should it also cover goods, services and facilities? That is a policy choice that needs to be considered. It is easier to get a Bill through Parliament if it is narrowly confined to employment, but is that sensible?
Should such a Bill cover indirect discrimination as well as direct discrimination? Much more difficult problems arise if it were to cover both. I would argue that it should, but the implications would need to be thought through. What about the exceptions? The
All of those problems are capable of solution. I suggest that they are better solved not by amending the Race Relations Act, not even by having a separate religious discrimination Bill, but by having, as the United States and Canada have, a comprehensive code that is user-friendly, intelligible and capable of being enforced. I agree with the right reverend Prelate that legislation is not a panacea. It seems to me to be a necessary but not a sufficient condition, and all the other matters to which he and other noble Lords have drawn attention need to be addressed as well.
To sum up, I strongly support the aims of the legislation. I believe that much more work will need to be carried out, not in obtaining evidence of the problem, but in persuading the Government to find the political will to tackle the defects in our existing equality legislation and to bring forward comprehensive legislation, of which this could be an important part. I believe that that aspiration will not be accomplished this side of the general election, but I say, respectfully, that I hope that it will find its way into the manifestos of the main parties. It will certainly be in the manifesto of my party, as it has been in the past.
Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, for bringing this Bill before us and giving us another opportunity to consider the subject. First, I agree that religious discrimination is fundamentally wrong. We are all on the side of the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, in relation to the morals and the principle behind his Bill.
We also recognise the dangerous force of religious prejudice. Throughout history there are examples, and today there are far too many examples, of the most hideous wars between different religions that have scarred our planet. Some of the most vicious wars have been not between different religions but between different denominations within a religion. The TroublesI believe that is the technical termin Northern Ireland are given that character, although, as in so many other modern cases, the dispute is not about any point of religion at all. It is a case of religion being used as an expression of difference, rather than there being a religious dispute in the theological sense.
At different times and in different circumstances each religion and each denomination within the main religions has been in a superior position and has pressed its views on others. In Great Britain those
Like the Minister, I come from Leicester, which is a city that in my lifetime has changed its religious composition along with its racial composition, as have other places, including the city where the right reverend Prelate has his cathedral. The reason why most people from overseas came to live here was extreme religious discrimination or religious persecution in other countries. We can be proud of the fact that they have found a haven here, but not so proud of the discrimination that takes place here.
There is also no doubt that Leicester, like our country, has benefited from the vitality and hard work of many who have come to live in this country. Their arrival has perhaps led to curry being accepted as our national dish. Of course, tea from the same sub-continent has long been our principal national drink.
Given the age-old nature and the divisive force of religious divisions, I believe it would be rash to suggest that we can abolish such matters by legislation. Of course, the Bill does not seek to do that; it seeks to protect people against the effects. It is true, as the right reverend Prelate said, that education and positive actions must go with any legislation.
Returning to the law, the problem, as the noble Lord, Lord Lester, has made clear, is to draft a satisfactory law that will provide a useful weapon against discrimination. It is partly a matter of defining religion itself, but also of deciding what is unacceptable. After all, religions themselves discriminate. Religious schools, as the noble Lord, said, hire teachers of the appropriate faith to teach their children. One cannot take a full part in a Church of England communion service or a Roman Catholic mass unless one has made a proper commitment to the appropriate body. I recall some cases relating to the rates payable on churches, which are defined as places of public worship, that hinged on such matters as whether everybody could play a full part in the services.
It is a difficult area. It is true that, although some people convert from one religion to another or from one denomination to another within a certain religion, most of us follow the religion of our forefathers. That means that in most cases religion comes with our race and nationality. For that reason, some religious groups can be regarded also as ethnic groups, and so find themselves covered by the Race Relations Act, whichI hope I shall not be misunderstood in saying thisin some respects is unfortunate, because it leaves others out in the cold, simply because their religion is not so tightly tied to the racial distinction.
There are also the problems as regards how fine the distinction should go; in other words, should it cover discrimination between denominations like Sunni and Shi'a Moslems or between Roman Catholics, Baptists and those in the Church of England? There is also the difficulty that arises because of certain groups or sects
The bottom line is the fact that religious discrimination is wrong and we certainly deplore it. But we must find a law that will work and one which will cover the matters that are the primary source of concern. Obviously, jobs and the provision of services, and so on, are first in the queue, if I may put it that way, but some of the most offensive and also the most damaging examples of discrimination are to be found in the form of words used about Muslims, in particular, in press reports. Indeed, such wording implies, and often more or less says, that all Muslims are fanatics who are bent upon destroying the rest of us. That seems to me to be exceptionally damaging and yet, in some respects, it is the most difficult to deal with from the legal point of view. It is also an absolutely false and an entirely wrong impression to give of Muslims.
Once again, we are grateful to the noble Lord for bringing this important issue to our attention. I understand that progress is being made in addressing the problems; indeed, we await the report from the University of Derby, which will no doubt represent further progress. However, much more work needs to be done. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, with his great experience of such matters, set out the arguments in that respect in a much more precise way than I can. However, the fact that the Bill has been placed before us in this way has permitted us to debate the issues and helped to push forward that necessary work. We are grateful to the noble Lord.
Lord Bach: My Lords, perhaps I may, first, join in the congratulations expressed to my noble friend Lord Ahmed on the manner in which he moved the Second Reading of his Private Member's Bill. Indeed, it displayed all his moderation, his good sense and his commitment to this particular cause. I was delighted that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bradford saw fit to pay such a proper tribute to my noble friend for what he has done in the past and for what he is doing at present. I should like to echo those sentiments from the Front Bench.
I should also like to make some mention of all the speakers who have taken part in the debate, but I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I do not do so. I must mention the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, in particular. His reputation in this field goes way before him. He is wary that, in speaking from the Front Bench, I shall latch on to the line of his arguments; indeed, if he will forgive me for saying so, it is extremely hard whenever one is debating such matters not to latch on, either subtly or not so subtly, to the arguments that the noble Lord has deployed with such expertise and skill over many years. I shall do my best not to latch on to the noble Lord's arguments tonight, except perhaps the more general one.
The fact that my speech from the Front Bench will not be very long does not mean that the Government believe that this is a minor matter. We believe that religious discrimination in our country is a serious and important issue and one which is worthy of careful and detailed consideration before deciding on the best course of action.
This country obviously has a strong Christian history, but it is also a country that enjoys the benefits of a broad and diverse religious landscape. We live in a multi-cultural society and we are infinitely the better for it. I was delighted to hear the noble Lord, Lord Cope, mention Leicester from which we both hail in one way or another. If anyone would like any proof that we are infinitely the better for our multi-cultural society, he or she should spend a few days in Leicester, or even in London, in order to see the improvement that our new society has made.
However, we shall not become a successful multi-cultural society until we value the contribution made by each and every one of our diverse communities; take pride in our diversity and celebrate itand I mean "celebrate it"to the world; and until people from different ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds can live and work together in an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding, while retaining their distinctive identities. Until then, we shall not have the successful multi-cultural society to which everyone in this House is committed.
The Government are determined to take a strong lead in eliminating all forms of discrimination and intolerance. I do not believe that it is going too far to say that most reasonably-minded people would say that this Government's commitment to those causes has been pretty well demonstrated in the first three years of their time in office.
The Government are especially alive to the concerns expressed about religious discrimination and the lack of effective action to tackle it. In particular, we heard most movingly about the concerns of the British Muslim community on the issue. Moreover, the Church of England, in the form of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford in our previous debate, has also expressed its commitment to exploring the serious and complex concerns raised by the question of religious discrimination. That was also reflected in the contribution made this evening by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bradford.
There is an anomaly in the law at presentit would be foolish to deny itwhereby some faith groups are protected, while others are not. But as a government we need to be absolutely clear about the nature of the problem before we can tackle it. We do not yet know to what extent other minority faith communities suffer from discrimination, and we do not fully understand the complex relationship between racial and religious identity and prejudice. We do not yet know what are the most effective methods of tackling religious discrimination.
I shall outline briefly the background to the research. Its purpose is fourfold: first, to assess the evidence of religious discrimination, both actual and perceived; secondly, to describe the patterns shown by evidence of this discriminationits overall scale, its main victims, its main perpetrators and the main ways in which the discrimination manifests itself; thirdly, to indicate the extent to which religious discrimination overlaps with racial discrimination; and, fourthly, but not as a last word on the subject, to identify the range of policy options available for dealing with such discrimination.
I turn now to the census mentioned by my noble friend Lady Uddin. One of the key messages that we have heard from minority faith communities was that they felt, as it were, invisible when it came to monitoring and statistics. The ethnic origin question, which was introduced in the last census in 1991, brought us a long way forward in addressing the needs of ethnic minorities but did nothing to help to identify the needs of minority faith communities. The census as it currently stands offers no detailed information about religious affiliation in relation to the Moslem, Sikh, Jewish and other faith communities.
The Census 2001 White Paper proposed, interestingly enough for the first time since 1851, to include a question on religion in relation to England and Wales. The Bill introduced in this House by the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, is due to get its Second Reading in another place in two days' time on 9th June. Subject to parliamentary approval, we shall finally have reliable data on our faith communities, which will help us to identify and address their needs. One very much hopes that all in another place will ensure that the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, moves forward.
There is no quick-fix solution to the issue of religious discrimination. It would not be reasonable to commit to amending existing legislation without having a clear understanding of the mischief that we intend to address and without making sure that we address it. The results of the research will provide an important evidential basis on which to make decisions about what the appropriate response should be.
This is an important issue. We want to reassure the House that we take it seriously. However, I do not think that I can do better than to paraphrase the words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bradford: if we are to have legislation, we need to be sure about it. In other words, we need to be sure that we are getting it right.
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