Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, I have put my name to this group of amendments mainly because, during the passage of this Bill, I have spoken from time to time about harassment. It is repugnant to most people that anyone should be authorised in any way to harass anyone else. But I come to this issue from a different angle from that voiced by noble Lords on the other side of the Chamber. I come at it from the standpoint of someone who is secular and a member of the Humanist Association. I do so because, while I support wholeheartedly the right of religious people to practise their religion and to proselytise, I do not believe that they have a right to enforce their beliefs on people who do not share them. Neither do they have a right to impose their way of life on people who do not share their beliefs.

As the Bill stands, in certain aspects, it could have that effect. Certainly, the Humanist Association thinks that it could, and it is particularly concerned about the effect of Clause 50(3). It says that it understands that the subsection is intended to protect the religious character of faith schools from complaints by parents of other religions or of none. Nevertheless, the wording will exempt not only legitimate religious activities of faith schools but the type of conduct by teachers towards pupils that could involve mocking or condemning their conscientious beliefs because such pupils do not share the school's beliefs. The association believes that the rights of the school must be balanced against the rights of the child.

I share that view, which is different from that expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, and the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain. I put my name to the amendments because I want to protect the right of those who do not have religion not to be harassed.
 
9 Nov 2005 : Column 657
 

5.15 pm

The Lord Bishop of Newcastle: My Lords, we on these Benches have similar concerns to those expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, especially about Clause 45 on harassment.

The concept is uncertain in its scope. One of the anxieties is that it may enable people, both of faith and of none, to take advantage of the provisions to make inappropriate claims of harassment. The provision is so widely drawn. It refers to,

and "violating" someone's "dignity". That is broad and uncertain and the parameters are far from clear.

We have considerable sympathy with the analysis of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and we are concerned that such a provision, wide and uncertain as it is, could be used to strike at religious organisations and their practices from outside the faith communities. They could also be used to encourage differences between them.

While it is true that someone's perception that he is the subject of harassment is not enough to found a successful claim, there is always the test of reasonableness. None the less, the potential for claims to be made against religious organisations remains. The encouragement of litigation in that way cannot be in the public interest. While we strongly support the idea that no one should ever be harassed on grounds of religion or belief, which I tried to say clearly in Committee, we still find this part of the Bill unsatisfactory, and we are worried that it could do more harm than good.

I find myself in something of a dilemma. If the harassment provisions remain in the Bill, we wish them to take a form that gives as little scope as possible for bringing claims of harassment in relation to expressions of religious belief. We believe that the government amendment helps and provides some assistance, and we welcome it to that extent. If Amendment No. 14 is passed tonight and if Clause 45 is then reinstated in another place, we would want the government amendment to be along the same lines, and extended if possible, in the final form of the Bill.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I am also concerned about the question of harassment. As the right reverend Prelate said, it is wrong that people should be harassed in any way. My noble friend Lady O'Cathain referred to this crazy world where individuals have become litigious. That is so, and I fear that we shall become more litigious, especially if we in Parliament try to account for every detail. Legislating for every eventuality and nicety means that every time a criterion is put down, we are inviting people to agree or disagree, and then to litigate, or we frighten people from doing what they have always done in case somebody might litigate against them.

My noble friend Lord Waddington was quite right when he said that the outcome of this Bill would not be that people would be rushing to take others to court
 
9 Nov 2005 : Column 658
 
for what they have done, but that the local authorities would take action. Reference has been made to Christmas lights being banned and called winter lights and to Christmas cards that say "Season's Greetings" instead of "Happy Christmas" for fear of prosecution.

People ought not to be frightened of doing something in case Big Brother gets at them. I can give noble Lords my thoughts on this matter only in a general sphere. Let us assume that your Lordships consider the general principle of the Bill, that Ministers give worthy assurances that things will be all right and that the Bill goes through. But once the Bill becomes law and officials look at what the law says, they will forget what Ministers have said and think, "Goodness, we've got to take this action because if we don't, somebody will say that we are not doing what we should have done according to the law".

Perhaps I may give noble Lords one example which occurred to me only this past week. I received a letter from a local authority. The letterhead included the kind of thing that we are used to seeing nowadays; for example, the Metropolitan Police always has some whacky saying at the bottom of its letters such as "Serving London" or "Creating a safer London". It is completely unnecessary, but that is what it does. The letter in question had come from Norfolk County Council and I think the words in this case were "Serving the Community"; in other words, doing all the things that government and people want and being non-frightening, understanding and conciliatory. But the top right-hand corner of the letter said: "Farm Enforcement Team". That has all the flavour of the jackboot. There is not much community service there. It is dictatorial and it is frightening.

That is what happens. If you go ahead putting lovely ideas into Bills, and trying to dot every "i" and cross every "t", you will make enforcement a matter of considerable concern. My fear in general is that by trying to cater for every eventuality, we are storing up trouble for the future.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden, I am a secularist and I see great dangers in this clause. For example, somebody might call me a heretic or an infidel, and I might very well take grave exception to that. It is very dangerous to be called a heretic or an infidel because, as a heretic, you can burn and, as an infidel, you can be stoned to death. One could therefore very easily take exception to being called a heretic or an infidel. One does not have to be of religious faith to be offended. As other noble Lords have pointed out, we are reaching an absurd situation where Christians are being penalised because they want to celebrate a Christian festival and those festivals are being put aside because of some perception that other people of a different faith might be offended.

That is completely absurd. I will give one more example, which is that is of a fire officer going to a fire station and insisting that the cross of St George should be removed in case that offended Muslims. We really are reaching an absurd situation, and it seems to me
 
9 Nov 2005 : Column 659
 
that this clause, in particular the phrase "or effect", will exacerbate the position rather than provide proper equality between people and religions.

Another thing about it which worries me is that the people who are often alleged to be offended—it generally happens that it is people of the Muslim faith—are not offended. I am afraid that it is often white, so-called liberals who impose these restrictions, not the Muslims who might be affected. But the effect of that, when it comes through in the newspapers, is that it is the Muslims who are objecting—and not that is their white, Christian compatriots who are doing this. That, in turn, leads to racial difficulties between people, and, indeed, to racial hatred. It is exactly what the Bill is supposed to eradicate.

I really want to support both amendments, but the better one is probably that moved by the noble Lord, Lord Lester. The matter really needs to be looked at very seriously and the noble Lord, along with other Members of your Lordships' House, has obviously given it considerable attention. We should be grateful to him for that. I hope that if the Minister takes no notice of what I say—and she never does—that she will, at least, take notice of the distinguished contributions made this afternoon, in particular by the noble Lord, Lord Lester, but by other noble Lords and Baronesses as well.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page