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Baroness Lockwood: My Lords, I fully support these amendments. I am a little surprised at the way in which the debate is going. Perhaps I should not be surprised, because the kind of thing that is being said now is the kind of thing that has been said every time non-discriminatory legislation goes through Parliament. Fears are raised which are found to be groundless. Arguments are put forward that do not stand up to scrutiny. When an Act is placed on the statute book, we behave in a sensible way in interpreting the legislation. There is understanding that, initially, there might be a few difficulties in coming to terms with some of the minutiae. But we get over those problems. This issue has been before Parliament on a number of occasions, even before this Bill. It has been raised at every stage of the Bill's passage, and there has been ample opportunity to discuss the basic principles and some of the implications arising from it. After previous discussions in the Chamber and consultations with the Government we have come up with a series of fair amendments that meet all the objections. They will work in a practical way when the Bill is given Royal Assent.

Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down perhaps I may say that the point that I raised about protections has not been discussed.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, I join those who have already expressed concern about the amendments. No one who has followed the Bill's progress through the House can doubt that when legislation seeks to make discrimination or harassment unlawful very complicated issues arise. I am sure that I am not alone in worrying about an amendment dealing with such discrimination being put before the House at this late hour, and by the suggestion that the law should be changed by regulations that cannot be amended. I hope that the least we can expect from the Government is that there will be extensive consultation before regulations are brought before the House. Perhaps the matter could be dealt with in that way. Some of our fears would be alleviated if we had the opportunity to see the shape of the regulations before they are put before the House for a vote. I agree entirely with my noble friend Lady O'Cathain that one would wish to see that the regulations provided some safeguards for religious communities.

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, I support the amendments and urge the House not to undervalue its own powers of scrutiny of secondary legislation. There
 
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is a Select Committee of the House—the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee, established 18 months ago. It now has significant influence. We examine every statutory instrument and bring a small number of them to the attention of the House. Departments are properly fearful of bringing forward orders that have not had proper consultation and cannot satisfy all the assurances sought by your Lordships. A couple of us from the committee are here today, and we shall look out especially for those orders to ensure that the assurances given by the Government have been fully carried out. If not, the House has the power to vote the measure down. Do not underrate the power of secondary legislation. We should support it by expressing concerns and ensuring that there is full consultation. I have every faith that that will happen, and the House has the power to ensure that it does.

Lord Mackay of Clashfern: My Lords, I welcome those developments, which make it possible to examine the provisions of subordinate legislation a good deal more fully than was possible in the past. I agree that there are difficult questions in drafting the regulations that will implement the amendments if they become part of the Bill. I assume that the Minister will undertake that nothing in the regulations will criminalise the practice of a person's faith in relation to the matters that may be the subject of the regulations.

Baroness Richardson of Calow: My Lords, I should not want the House to assume that all those with a religious faith are automatically against such provisions being in the Bill. I support the amendment.

4 pm

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, this has been an interesting debate, and I could have predicted that these issues would be raised. I shall try to address them on behalf of the Government.

There is no question of a late-hour amendment. Throughout the passage of this Bill, I have met with every noble Lord who has put down an amendment in order to make sure that we have the right kind of dialogue. I think that every noble Lord would agree with that. So, as amendments emerge during the passage of the Bill, the Government are usually fully aware of what the amendments are about and why they have been proposed. Noble Lords will know that, at every stage of this Bill, this issue has been raised on all sides of your Lordships' House with real strength of feeling. I have also seen that today. Despite the reservations, the underlying principle behind the amendments commands huge support in your Lordships' House, and rightly so.

It was precisely because of the concerns that were raised that the Government were unable and unwilling to accept the amendments that came before your Lordships' House at the previous stage. As the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, said, consultation is a critical part of the development of the regulations. In a sensitive area such as this—we accept that it is—it is very important that we make it clear that we need to consult. We need to consult those who have a religious
 
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conviction; we need to consult those who have been discriminated against; we need to consult business; we need to consult all those who provide the services that we are seeking to regulate.

I smiled at the comment of the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, about religious hospitals. It was not the "religious" but the "hospital" bit at which I smiled. It is difficult to imagine a hospital refusing a service to anybody. I take serious issue with that.

It will be an affirmative process. We want the maximum amount of consultation. We are not in the business of trying to criminalise individuals for strongly held beliefs. We are in the business of making sure that people cannot be discriminated against when that is inappropriate. I am extremely grateful for the tenacity of my noble friend Lord Alli, supported by his noble friend Lord Smith, the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and many other noble Lords on our Benches and other Benches, who worked incredibly hard to see what we could do in the Equality Bill that could support our belief that it is unacceptable to discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation.

It is the Government's intention to accept the amendment. It is an important moment because it will lead to an important change in the law. It will lead to much-needed protection against discrimination in areas of life where gay men and lesbians have suffered the kind of injustice and unfairness that can blight lives. It will lead to regulations that will mean that gay men and lesbians will no longer need to put up with discriminatory treatment in hotels or bars, in the financial services sector or in other services provided by the public and private sectors. Anyone who suffers such treatment will in future have the protection of the law. These changes can have a real impact on daily lives. They are one more step towards the society based on fairness and social justice that I believe every Member of your Lordships' House and certainly every member of this Government seeks. It will be another important step on the road to the comprehensive rights that the Government have sought to provide for gay, lesbian and bisexual people.

I congratulate my noble friend. I have listened with great care to the concerns that have been raised. We will be very mindful of the sensitivities involved. We will consult properly and widely. Your Lordships will have the chance to see what is happening for it will be done in a transparent and open way. I say to noble Lords who have concerns, "Please don't have the concerns; we will do this properly". We want to do it for the benefit of our entire society, but especially for those who have been discriminated against for far too long. It is a privilege to accept the amendment.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, perhaps I may intervene before the Minister sits down. It is commendable that she said that there will be full consultation. Indeed, she has been studiously concerned with consultation
 
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throughout. But if one consults with somebody who has one set of views and somebody who has another set of views, eventually the Government have to make their mind up. Once their mind is made up, what they decide appears in the regulations. Once the regulations are made, Parliament cannot easily alter them. Does the Minister agree?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the purpose of the consultation is to look at why people have strongly held views, the services they provide, the way in which this would work, and to reach—as far as we possibly can—an appropriate and consensual approach. Eventually, Parliament will have its day to look at the regulations. I suspect that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will determine that there will not be one big group of regulations. Rather, the consultation will take place over a period of time. The timetabling issues will be for my honourable friend Meg Munn to work out. I am sure more of such detail will emerge as the Bill reaches another place.

Have no fear; we will ensure that what comes before your Lordships' House is properly thought through. The Government will take a view, but Parliament will have its chance too.


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