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Whether the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006 would require a family-run bed and breakfast to let out a double room to a transsexual couple, even if the family consider it to be in the best interests of their children to refuse to allow such a situation in their own home.[Official Report, 13/12/06; col. WA198.]
Surely the truth of the matter is that these regulations do not so much prohibit or require that certain things should or should not be done but provide a route by which aggrieved parties may seek legal redress if another party should do or fail to do certain things. It is rather akin to the position that would occur if I should be so foolish as to libel the noble Lord, Lord Lester. He would be able to seek redress swiftly in the courts.
Just as the laws of libel are sometimes used by the rich and powerful to intimidate into silence their less rich and powerful critics, so these regulations would leave perfectly innocent people in fear of legal action by the fanatical wings of the lesbian and gay pressure groups. Whatever the intention of those who drafted the regulations, they are bound to create not only a shadow or umbra of prohibitions but a vastly wider penumbra of the fear of prosecution.
We have only to reflect on the fear of the Derbyshire police recently that they might lay themselves open to action under the Human Rights Act should they publish photographs of two murderers who had walked out of prison and the later confident assertion of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor that there was no such risk. When we think about that, we realise the climate of fear that can be created by legislation of the sort that we are discussing today. After all, the Derbyshire police presumably have access to better legal advice than the unfortunate proprietor of a bed and breakfast establishment in Northern Ireland.
For those reasons, I am left full of disquiet about the nature of the regulations as well as full of very strong views on the manner in which this legislation is
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Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for mentioning me so many times in the context of questioning Ministers, but will he explain whether he takes the same view of claimants aggrieved by sex, disability, age, race or religious discrimination as he does of victims of sexual orientation discrimination? Does he take the view that that whole body of legislation should be repealed on the ground that it would be coercive and intimidatory to those who practise discrimination, or is it only homosexuals that he would deprive of relief?
Lord Tebbit: My Lords, the noble Lord is again going off on a wrong track. This is about the requirement for, for example, a bed and breakfast establishment proprietor to facilitate the act of sodomy. It is not about discrimination against a homosexual couple. That is the point of which the noble Lord, Lord Lester, has uncharacteristically lost sight.
Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon: My Lords, I find it difficult to understand the point that the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, is making and I should be grateful if he could elucidate on it further. He seems to repeat the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, that somehow or other it would be improper to discriminate against someone on the ground of orientation but proper to discriminate on the ground of action. Surely the whole basis of our law is that you do not discriminate against people on the ground of action, provided that that action is legal, which in this case it is. So I cannot see the difference.
Lord Tebbit: My Lords, let me put it another way for the noble Lord. He is supporting legislation tonight that would make it possible for two young menchavs, shall we call them perhapsto go with their girlfriends into a gay bar and then claim that they had been discriminated against or humiliated by the remarks or behaviour of people in that gay bar. Is that what we want to come out of this? It is not what I want to come out of this, but that is what will be the effect of it and that is why I object to it.
Viscount Brookeborough: My Lords, I rise briefly to support what the noble and most reverend Lord, Lord Eames, said. This is not about attitudes; this is about the process, and the process we are going through tonight is even more unique than normal. What is the effect of an order in Northern Ireland, followed by a Bill for the remainder of the United Kingdom? Normally orders in Northern Ireland are either unique to Northern Ireland or they follow legislation in the remainder of the United Kingdom. This process is unique in a different way, in supporting an order that came in on 1 January, because the order is already in place, written on the Governments instructions, without amendment and without consultation. We have in place an order
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We have heard about guest houses. I am, as the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, put it, the unfortunate proprietor of a guest house in Northern Irelandthough I do not think that I am unfortunate. I have had a few noble Lords to stay and I quite enjoyed it; whether they did is another matter. Please note that I do not have children and we are notand here I shall be accused of discriminationa very children-friendly place because we do not have a nursery or childrens toys. The point is this: a guest house is not a hotel; nor is it the local ironmongers or a travel agency. It is a place to which people govery often as couplesto get away for a happy weekend together.
More than anything, a guest house is unique because it involves the guests in the family. They are not in room 214 where they can press a buttonif they did so at Colebrook they would not get anything. They are among the family. If there are children, they can talk to the children. They may even have children as guests themselves and will involve themselves with those children. It may not be the religious belief of people who own guest houses, but purely their determination, that their children may grow up to be able to make a decision on whether they are influenced by activities of which their parents do not necessarily approve. This is absolutely vital.
Lord Alli: My Lords, would the noble Lord answer two questions for me? Would he allow me to stay in his guest house on the basis of my colour? And would he allow me and my partner to stay in his guest house on the basis of our sexual orientation?
Viscount Brookeborough: My Lords, I would be delighted for the noble Lord to stay on the basis of both his colour and his sexual orientation. There is absolutely no question about it. Please do come and stay and I will charge you appropriately. It will be precisely the same as for everybody else, I assure you. However, this is not about that. This is about having people among your family. That is the important thing. I accept entirely what the noble Baroness, Lady Blood, said about her working stays in guest houses. I suggest that she and her roommate would not normally carry on throughout the day the way that a couple would if they were away for a very special weekend alone. That is slightly different, but I accept that it may, under certain circumstances, happen, and it has happened in our house.
I am going to finish now. First, however, this is unique to Northern Ireland not only because it is an Order in Council; it is unique because it is being done prior to other legislation coming into effect in
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The Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham: My Lords, I would like to pick up on some of the scenes that I have heard this evening in the Chamber, and particularly I refer to the earlier scenes enunciated by the noble and most reverend Lord, Lord Eames. The regulations do not apply to England. The Church of England has already submitted its views on the important points that need to be safeguarded in the parallel regulations for Great Britain. We very much welcome the time and the trouble that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is taking to consider all the representations that she has received.
The regulations might have been a great deal more satisfactory if Ministers and officials in Northern Ireland had also taken more time to engage in detail with the churches and others there about them. As a result, we find ourselves having to consider regulations that, while in some respects perfectly sensible, are in other respects unclear and cause a deep anxietyand surely that anxiety is patently obvious to anyone who is listeningto Christians and other people of faith.
For example, when Parliament has no opportunity to make amendments, it frankly beggars belief that provisions on harassment were inserted at the last minute and without warning. It is not enough to say that harassment is a bad thing, which manifestly it is. The question is how to avoid making any new provisions so subjective that they act as a curb on the legitimate expression of opinion to which others take offence. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister why it has been thought necessary to proceed with such haste in one part of the United Kingdom when the Governments sensible decision for elsewhere has been to study the matter at greater length as part of the discrimination law review.
The regulations clearly demonstrate the need to strike a fair balance between the rights of homosexual people to be treated with dignity and respect and the rights of Christians and other people of faith to manifest their religious beliefs, including those in relation to sexual conduct. In the view of a number of us on these Benches, these hastily prepared regulations fail to do that. Instead, they run the risk of facing significant numbers of people, as we have heard earlier in the debate, with the choice between complying with the law or with their religiously informed conscience. Whether that is the intention of the Secretary of State, or simply the unintended consequence of regulations produced with inadequate consultation, is unclear. But it causes many of us great concern.
The Government have, of course, sought to be helpful by including a set of special provisions for churches and other religious organisations in Regulation 16. Most Christian denominations and other faiths are not able in good conscience to make their places of worship available to those who wish, for example, to
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All the mainstream Christian churches are clear that they have no wish to impose restrictions on the ground of sexual orientation as opposed to conduct. That being so, it is far from clear that the varied restrictions that religious organisations might wish to imposenamely, on the basis of homosexual conductwould in fact be protected. It would also be helpful to have the Ministers confirmation that they are intended to be.
Also of concern, in terms of exceptions, is what is expressly left out. Regulation 11 imposes a very wide general duty on educational establishments, and yet there is no special provision for faith schools. No one would seek to argue for an exemption in relation, for example, to admissions policies, but what about the teaching in relation to marriage? Whether in the classroom or in the context of collective worship, is a Roman Catholic school that teaches children the traditional Catholic view to be at risk of legal challenge? If that is not the Governments intention, the regulation should have made that position clearer. The potential for bringing such claims risks putting schools in an unnecessarily difficult position. There is absolutely no case for this when in practice the whole area of sex and relationship education is being handled sensitively in faith schools within the present, very carefully balanced statutory framework. In the regulations for Great Britain, it is important that this matter is put beyond doubt. In the mean time, I can only express very real concern that the regulations for Northern Ireland do not deal with this matter satisfactorily.
In conclusion, there is much in these regulations that is uncontentious and a very proper protection against injustice, but overall they fail to strike that careful balance, which Parliament has been historically good at striking, that is needed particularly in areas where conflicting rights are engaged. They have all the hallmarks of haste and insufficient engagement, both at policy level and on detailed drafting with the churches. Whatever the outcome of tonights debate, it is crucial that the serious issues raised by Christian and other religious leaders are adequately dealt with before the regulations for the rest of the United Kingdom are finalised.
Baroness Harris of Richmond: My Lords, it is extremely rare to see so many of your Lordships in the Chamber when we are debating matters to do with Northern Ireland. I think perhaps tonight I understand why. It is very good to see the interest being taken tonight. I will be very brief.
I have had from Stonewall two examples which may help your Lordships make up your minds about which way you will vote. One gay couple from Northern Ireland wrote to Stonewall recently saying why they were turned away late at night from a country hotel which they had booked months before in order to attend a sisters wedding. They found the experience utterly humiliating. Stonewall also says that it heard from a woman who went to see her GP, having suffered from work-related stress. When the woman mentioned her lesbian partner in conversation, she was told that she was engaging in unnatural, inhuman practices and that it was none too surprising that she would be suffering from mental distress as a consequence. The unnatural, inhuman practices were being perpetrated by the GP. It deeply saddens me to have to say that. It is essential that these regulations are accepted by Parliament and that Northern Ireland should lead the way towards a tolerant, caring and humane society.
Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, it seems extraordinary to me that we are now debating secondary legislation that is so flawed that the High Court has granted permission for a judicial review on the question of whether this secondary legislation breaches the Human Rights Act. Surely it would have been better to await the outcome of that review, fixed for 1 and 2 March, instead of charging blindly on.
I am also surprised that we have been required to debate these regulations today before the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has been able to produce its report. Given that it clearly has questions about the regulations, surely it would have been better if we had waited a couple of weeks for that report.
The Merits Committee has expressed a certain amount of doubt, and the Joint Committee could have shed further light on the comments of the Merits Committee, but we have been deprived of that light by the Governments indecent haste to get this debate out of the way. One of the members of that committee, Mr David Simpson MP, has said publicly:
The Governments timetabling makes a mockery of the parliamentary process. How are MPs supposed to make an informed decision about Sexual Orientation Regulations before the committee has had a chance to report? We have serious questions about how the regulations could interfere with religious liberty under the Human Rights Act. Peter Hain is rushing these regulations onto the statute book and seems prepared to sideline the parliamentary process in order to do so.
It is quite clear that throughout this whole process the Government have been prepared to ride roughshod over everybody. As the noble and most reverend Lord, Lord Eames, and others have noted, the consultation timetable was quite unacceptablea period of eight weeks which included the entire month of August, the main holiday season in Northern Ireland, therefore in effect four weeks. The Governments own guidelines state that public consultation should be held over a standard minimum period of 12 weeksnot four weeks. In the rest of the United Kingdom, the consultation lasted 12 weeks, from 13 March to 5 June 2006. Why was Northern Irelands consultation in effect one third of that?
The regulations were made on 8 November 2006, just six weeks and two days after the public consultation closed on 25 September. Do the Government really expect us to believe that six weeks and two days is long enough to consider the 373 responses and to address the complex issues raised?
In the rest of the United Kingdom, the making of the regulations has been postponed while issues raised during the public consultation are being addressed. The Government have postponed the implementation of the regulations on the mainland until April 2007. Their consultation ended three and a half months before that of Northern Ireland.
Let us presume that the regulations will be made around mid-February. That constitutes 250 days between the end of the consultation and the making of the regulations, compared with 44 days in Northern Ireland. How does that stack up? It is an insult to Northern Ireland that the time between the end of the consultation and the making of the regulations is around one-fifth of that in the rest of the United Kingdom.
I thank my noble friend Lady Blood for her very powerful speech. Some may have thought that the whole of Northern Ireland would oppose these laws, and my noble friend made it very clear that that was not the case.
I would not normally speak on regulations affecting Northern Ireland, but as one of the few gay Peers in your Lordships' House, I know only too well how essential these regulations are. I argued passionately for them last year, and I pay particular tribute to the Government for ensuring that they have come forward. The widespread incidence of unfair treatment on the ground of sexual orientation led to this House supporting that amendment and voting to outlaw this kind of discrimination. I warned then that there would come a time when extending these provisions from religious groups which have these protections to lesbian and gay men would find opposition from those same religious groups which argued so successfully for the original legislation.
Look outside this building tonight, listen to the small but vocal crowd, and imagine how it feels to walk through that crowd and see so much prejudice directed towards you simply because you are gay, simply because you are yourself, simply because you exist. It is rank hypocrisy to object to this order, having argued for the very same protection for religious groups only a few months ago.
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