Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendments Nos. 12, 13, 14 and subsequent ones. My noble friend's Amendment No. 12 would of course provide a safeguard, but it does not go far enough. Narrowing down Clause 45 to actions that have the purpose of causing harassment does not eliminate the risk of catching all kinds of perfectly sensible behaviour.

What if a religious charity knew that some people thought that saying grace at meals was harassment? If it continued to say grace anyway a court could infer a harassment purpose on the basis of its prior knowledge of other people's sensitivities. No, these harassment provisions are just too risky whichever way you slice them. I acknowledge my noble friend's concern about this issue—she is a deeply committed person. We have had discussions on the matter. But in these circumstances I prefer the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, to delete harassment completely from the Bill. I have put my name to that amendment.

Turning to government Amendment No. 13, I am reluctant to appear ungrateful when the Government have clearly moved some way towards us on this issue. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, has applied her considerable brain to this matter and has sought to offer something which meets the problem. I appreciate that but I am sad to say that this amendment is simply not enough.

Since Second Reading I have constantly raised concerns about how the religious harassment provisions could be used to attack our religious heritage and undermine liberty. Amendment No. 13 proves that my concerns were well founded. It now appears to be accepted that without this amendment a hospital could be sued for harassment over the placing of Bibles, a local council that holds a public meeting in a church could be sued over the presence of a cross on the wall, and, indeed, a Salvation Army hospice could be sued over a banner on a wall containing a biblical text.

My concerns about harassment have grown as the weeks have gone by. We live in a crazy world where some individuals are litigious. We live in a country where officialdom increasingly appears to be in thrall to political correctness. That is already having a damaging effect on our heritage. Last week we had front-page newspaper headlines about officials at Lambeth council trying to ban Christmas lights; Inland Revenue officials banning support for a Christian charity that sends Christmas presents to needy children; and museum staff deleting references to Christ from exhibits. We need to be sure that the Bill does nothing to encourage this kind of lunacy. Although the government amendment addresses religious objects, I am worried that it does nothing for free speech, as the noble Lord, Lord Lester, said.
 
9 Nov 2005 : Column 654
 

On Report I tabled an amendment on behalf of the Church of England, which addressed not only religious objects but also manifestations of religion. It was intended to protect the saying of grace at meals and conversations about religion. The government amendment, to be fair, copies my amendment in some ways—and I am flattered—but it deletes references to manifestations of religion.

I understand that officials felt that this area was too difficult to address, but we cannot just leave the matter to the tender mercy of hostile litigants because it is too difficult for officials to address. We cannot ignore the plight of the Christian hospice that could be sued for saying grace, or the prison chaplain who is told he cannot initiate conversations about God with inmates, or the Inland Revenue employee who is banned from wishing his clients a merry Christmas.

I think that the whole issue of harassment is absolutely fraught and that we would be better off without it. That is why I cannot support the government amendment and instead support Amendment No. 14 and all the subsequent amendments in this grouping, to which I have added my name. I do so because I fear religious harassment could be as damaging to religious freedom and community cohesion as the religious hatred provisions that the Government want to introduce in another Bill.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Lester, perhaps I may briefly give the House some theoretical examples of the kind of mischief that could result from Clause 45. Let us imagine that a Home Office official gives a talk on community relations. Perhaps he talks about the risks posed by certain religious cults. If one of those present is a member of such a cult, an action could be launched claiming that the official created a hostile environment. What about a GP's waiting room where there are posters on the wall—and I have seen these—from a Government agency advertising a telephone helpline for members of ethnic minorities who are being coerced into forced marriages? If a woman comes in who believes, as a matter of faith, in arranged marriages, could she lodge a claim that the poster created a hostile environment?

What about the case of a pagan who outwardly says he is a pagan and is in gaol for a paedophile offence? The chaplain criticises the occult and warns prisoners to have nothing to do with it. The pagan could claim harassment; he could seek an injunction. Does this case sound ridiculous? These are the facts of a real case, brought in Australia under religious vilification legislation. It did not succeed under Australian law, but it illustrates the kind of case that could be brought.

We are not legislating in a vacuum. We are legislating in a climate where there are already some who view the equality agenda as a pretext for attacks on faith. I quote from last Sunday's Observer:

This is ludicrous.
 
9 Nov 2005 : Column 655
 

Sadly, even the Home Office itself is making headlines on this issue. In one of yesterday's papers it was revealed that Home Office officials are threatening to withdraw funding from a memorial carol service for the victims of crime because it is too Christian. It suggested holding the service at a secular venue. This is precisely the kind of over-sensitivity that this harassment provision will foster. Removal of the provision would remove a considerable source of uncertainty and, indeed, anxiety from the Bill. I do hope for great support for Amendment No. 14 in the Division Lobby.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, two amendments in this group are directed towards mitigating the worst effects of Clause 45. I refer to Amendment No. 12, to which my noble friend spoke at the beginning of this debate, and government Amendment No. 13. So long as Clause 45 stands, it will remain all too easy for public authorities to ban religious activity on the pretext that such activity could be found to have the purpose of violating somebody's dignity or creating an offensive environment for him. So I support the amendment, which the noble Lord, Lord Lester, is going to move, to delete Clause 45 and I am afraid that I cannot support my noble friend on Amendment No. 12 .

I want to make a general point. Of course, one should be sensitive to other people's feelings, but I think society has some reason to be worried about the gross and disproportionate way some people react to real and imagined slights and take offence at views expressed by others. It would be a great pity if by changes in the law we were to give encouragement to the over-sensitive to rush to the courts to correct real and imagined grievances. But the real worry, as many noble Lords have said in previous debates, is not that people will rush to the courts to bring actions for religious harassment; it is that public authorities will play safe and restrict the right of Christians to practise and demonstrate their faith for fear of finding themselves on the wrong side of the law.

To that end, they may put a stop to any manifestation of the Christian faith in public buildings by, for instance, cutting funding to Christian welfare charities because they say grace before meals. One has to look only at the circumstances referred to by my noble friends—the reluctance of certain authorities to celebrate Christmas and all the nonsense of the Home Office apparently threatening to withdraw funding for an annual memorial service at St Martin-in-the-Fields for the victims of crime—to realise that the fears expressed by Christian bodies are not fanciful. They are real.

We are being dangerously complacent if we imagine that if Clause 45 stands we will not find public authorities banning Bibles from hospitals, crosses from cemeteries and crematoria, and chaplains from prisons. Amendment No. 13 does something to protect the display of crosses and Bibles. No government amendment does anything to protect religious debate—in short, to protect free speech.
 
9 Nov 2005 : Column 656
 

I fear that under existing law the pendulum has swung dangerously far against free speech. I do not believe that when the Public Order Act was passed in 1986—I was in government at the time—anyone thought that that Act would be used to punish a minister of religion for preaching against the commission of homosexual acts. Yet that happened in Bournemouth a couple of years ago. The minister preaching against homosexual acts was assaulted by a group of young men—claiming no doubt that their dignity had been violated—but they were not even cautioned. It was the minister of religion who was punished.

Personally, I think that that prosecution was outrageous, but that is not my point. My point is that there are already plenty of weapons in the hands of those who wish to suppress free speech and already too many opportunities for those who want to see the free expression of religious views curtailed. I do not want to add to their armament. Most people can see the sense of legislation to prevent discrimination—almost everyone does. Legislation to stop people being offended is a very different kettle of fish.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page