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It will be a terrible outcome if the coin only turns from one side to the other. Had there been more time, the relationship between the regulations and the provisions in the Act on protection on grounds of religion and belief could have been teased out.
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It would be a very odd outcome for anti-discrimination legislation if agencies, which have for decades provided one of the most highly respected adoption services, will, as the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, bravely pointed out, be forced out of business, not because they are useless but because there appears to be no way in which they can be allowed to continue to provide a contracted service if they cannot sign up to agreeing to same-sex adoption. Many other agencies that do not have the same outlook could fulfil this requirement without the church agencies, which do such invaluable work with some of the most vulnerable children in our society, having to be put out of business.
Will the Minister say whether the churches will be consulted further to see whether there can be accommodation before the transitional period expires? Will she also say what is implied by the Secretary of States response to the consultation in which she said that there would be an ongoing independent assessment of the issues undertaken within the transitional period? The Minister referred to that in her opening remarks and I was a little concerned at the way this is going. What the Government need to do now is to find a way out of this which leaves the agenciesthe church agencies, the faith agenciesable to continue with their work. If we are all talking about the interests of the child, surely it is not in the interests of the child that valuable and what in many cases are voluntary agencies, a point made by my noble friend Lord Pilkington, should be driven from business.
I want to make it clear that, these reservations aside, I support much of the general thrust of these regulations. But I recognise and sympathise with the deeply held views that have been expressed, and I am concerned about the procedures which have landed us in this discussion tonight. Tolerance and understanding in our society need to embrace those who agree with the Governments views and those who do not, and who now may feel threatened by them. I believe that my noble friend has made a case which has to be answered, and I look forward to hearing the Ministers response to this important debate. Before I finish, I want to stress that tonight my party has a free vote on this matter.
Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken. It has, predictably, been a passionate, personal and thoughtful debate. I should say to the noble Baroness that I am delighted that we in the Department for Communities and Local Government are responsible for equalities and I am proud to stand here and present these regulations. As I said in my opening speech, they represent the end of a long and important journey. We have heard some exceptional speeches, among them those of the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, and my noble friend Lord Smith. It has been inspiring to listen to the reconciliation of religion and ethics. The House will be grateful to them that there is no polarity between Christianity and our joint commitment to put an end to discrimination.
In response to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, I took to heart his comment about the need to have loving attitudes towards all our neighbours, and the injunction of the most reverend Primate that we need to live magnanimously with difference. Those words confirm absolutely my conviction that these regulations are right because that is what they do: they enable us to live magnanimously with difference and to love our neighbours. Further, they are being introduced against the background of a consistent focus on tackling discrimination since 1997. We overturned Section 28, passed legislation to permit adoption by same-sex couples, created civil partnerships and have been uncompromising in our work to tackle homophobic bullying.
I will not repeat the detailed chronology I set out in my opening speech of the process. I have listened intently to noble Lords, but I will say that if we had not brought forward regulations and this provision had been in the Bill, it is unlikely that it would have had the extensive public consultation and attracted the 3,000 responses we have received. Those have enabled us to understand the scope and intensity of the debate on this issue. That was a good thing to do and I share the frustration of my noble friend Lord Alli that it has taken a long time, particularly for him and others who have been on the journey so intensively.
Tonight we are taking a modest step by acting on the commitment we gave in the Equality Act to introduce regulations that provide protection from sexual-orientation discrimination in the provision of goods and services on a par with the protection already provided on the grounds of disability, sex and race, and which will shortly be provided for religion and belief. It is a modest step, one that is logical and humane, and it is the right thing to do. Many noble Lords have spoken more eloquently than I about the implications of that and why, in their experience, this is the right thing to do.
In line with the Human Rights Act, the Government have sought to ensure that in protecting the rights of one grouplesbian, gay and bisexual peoplewe also uphold the right of individuals to
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I was disappointed when the noble Baroness, Lady OCathain, talked about the measure forcing believers to change belief and even about an assault on Christian values. It is not. Nothing in these regulations prevents people holding beliefs. These regulations are designed to capture, as my noble friend Lord Smith said, where that belief is manifested to discriminate against people. Holding belief does not justify behaving in a discriminatory fashion.
The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York said that we had not moved halfway in this meeting of minds, with these competing rights. We did, and we have drawn the line in the right place. I am sorry, but I have to disagree with my noble friend Lord Anderson about this, although he and I are usually in agreement about everything: in the Governments opinionand in the opinion of the JCHR, which we value immenselywe have achieved the balance between competing rights. It is not an issue of freedom of conscience, but of moderating our actions to accommodate difference within society. If these regulations promote anything, it is tolerance, respect and the principle of fairness, which must run throughout all the services and facilities covered by these regulations.
The noble Baroness, Lady OCathain, asked, as did the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester and other noble Lords, such as the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, why there was an exemption in education for religion or belief, but not on the grounds of sexual orientation. Issues that arise in the context of religion or belief have no counterpart with regard to sexual orientation. The exemption we provided was for all schools for anything done in connection with the curriculum, to prevent claims being brought against schoolsfor example, for using computers in school, which discriminates against the Plymouth Brethren, who are forbidden to use such technology; or for the choice of songs in music lessons, which discriminates against the children of Jehovahs Witnesses. That was the reason for that particular exemption.
We have had a debate today about where the church belongs. The church belongs in the world. These regulations will not interfere with peoples right to hold a religious belief or observe religious practice. There is of course a place for religious organisations in providing invaluable public services; we are in their debt. But when any organisation offers a service on behalf of, or under contract with, a public authority, it must take the public as they are. For too long, gay and lesbian people have been able to be turned away. They have been offered inferior services simply on the basis of their sexual orientation, and it is time that that stopped.
These regulations do not force people to act against their consciencethey require them simply to live within the law and offer equal access to goods. They do not compel religious organisations to hire out their premises if they can provide evidence that
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I shall say a few words about adoption and fostering. We all seem to have been listening to the radio this morning. I heard a very moving interview with a young man who is being cared for by two lesbians. He said how much better it was to be loved, and to have a home with two mums who cared for him, rather than being with people who did not care. That expresses more than anything I could say why it is so important that gay and lesbian people should have the freedom to adopt jointly.
Noble Lords have claimed that adoption agencies will close; that the rights of gay couples will take precedence of those of children. The term forcing closure was used by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham. No, we are not forcing closure. We are seeking, in all the ways we know how, to find an accommodation with the religious adoption societies. We do not give priority to gay people. As I said earlier, there is no right to adopt; there is a process that is humane, but also very rigorous. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, who spoke of intolerable pressure on the Catholic agencies, that that is precisely why we have allowed such a long time to find an accommodation.
That is exactly how we want to work with the churches, not just with adoption agencies but with the whole raft of public activity with which they are engaged. Having set up the independent assessment panel, we believe that we will be able to work out an accommodation with the adoption agencies.
Before I close, let me say just a few words on education. The curriculum issues that I described in my opening speech will, I hope, enable me to answer the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Lester. He asked me to agree that there was no need to exempt the curriculum, and I can do so. As I explained, the curriculum is not liable to be detrimental in itself, and so the concept of exemption would not apply. Where discrimination really hurts children is in how the curriculum is taught, and that is caught by the regulations. I reiterate that there should be no issue where guidelines are followed by schools, because the guidelines provide for the teaching of sexual relationships in a manner which is designed to be non-stigmatising and to promote respect. I hope that answers some of the points that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester raised. In answer to his second point, if we agreed that a public authority mandated a curriculum that requires teachers to act in a discriminatory way in breach of regulations, it could be subject to judicial review. But considering the care that goes into the making of the curriculum, I think that that is unlikely.
Many other things have been said, much of which have been somewhat misinformed but I feel fairly confident that this issue has been addressed by many different people. For example noble Lords have raised issues such as the Christian printer who provides a service. I think we have had a very full debate on the way in which the regulations will work. Many noble Lords have stressed that, like the vast majority of people who replied to the consultation process, they are against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. I respect and applaud that but I would argue that if that is the case, they must act against discrimination and support these regulations. The Prime Minister has said that there is no room in our society for discrimination. He is right and I am sure that this House will demonstrate that tonight.
Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her very thoughtful opening speech and the wind-up. I would also like to thank every noble Lord who has spoken tonight. I think we have moved on a lot in understanding. There is simply not time to respond to so many detailed concerns at this late hour but it is clear that this is an issue of immense importance which bothers many people here and many more outside. We have just not had a chance to do our job properly; namely, to scrutinise. Therefore, I wish to test the opinion of the House.
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