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Lord Low of Dalston: My Lords, this is something for which I called at Second Reading, so I naturally very much welcome the Government bringing forward these amendments today. Indeed, I could hardly do otherwise, since I see that my name has been added to the government amendment. It got there by a rather roundabout route, I think. The Government, as the Minister has explained, tabled their first amendment, which covered half the ground, and the noble Baroness,
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Lord Lester of Herne Hill: We strongly support the government amendments. I just add that when the noble Lord, Lord Low, sounds the trumpet, we all follow him in this area. I am delighted that the Government have done so.
Baroness Warsi: We welcome these amendments from the Government and thank the Minister for her introduction to them. Effectively, these amendments are about auxiliary aids and services in schools. The combined effect would be to remove the existing exception in the Bill, whereby a local authority or school is not required to consider the provision of auxiliary aids.
We have heard from the Disability Charities Consortium that there is a gap in provision where disabled children have suffered because they have not received a statement of special educational needs-which would then have placed a duty on the local authority to provide for those needs-or where accessibility plans have not been met for individuals. This may mean that there are children with disabilities who are yet outside the scope of either the SEN provisions or those of the Disability Discrimination Act and so no single authority is held responsible for their support. These amendments therefore address a gap in provision which it is very important to fix. We want to ensure that no child could be let down by falling between the two and so being helped by neither Act.
Can the Minister inform the Committee of the results of the cost assessment which the Government performed to analyse whether such provisions would be possible? Can she also inform us of how much it might cost a local authority if it had to provide auxiliary aids and services in this area? Nobody would deny the worthiness of these amendments. Indeed, we supported them at Second Reading for the help that they would provide for individual children. At a time of economic difficulty, however important these beneficial provisions are, and however much they are placed in the Bill, I am concerned about whether they will be delivered. I look forward to the Minister's response.
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I am grateful for the broad support from all Benches for the government amendments. My noble friend Lady Wilkins expressed a fear that the Bill does not provide an anticipatory duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people in schools. I assure her that our intention has always been for there to be such a duty, and we are confident that the Bill as drafted achieves this. I will not go into the complexity of the drafting here, but I will write to her and place a copy of that letter in the Library, circulating it to all noble Lords who have taken part in debates on the Equality Bill.
The noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, made a very important point about the economics and asked about the costings. I have to confess that the exact costings have not yet been investigated, but I will come back to the Committee with the figures when they are available. However, notwithstanding the fact that we are in recessionary times and there are economic difficulties and, therefore, great challenges for local authorities, it is right and proper that all members of our society, disabled and able-bodied, have access to education and the educational aids they need in order to thrive as individuals and to participate as full members of our society. That is why we have put down these amendments, notwithstanding the fact that we do not have all the costings available.
"(g) the celebration or marking of any religious festival;
(h) the display or presentation of any holy book, religious symbol or religious object;
(i) the saying of prayers;
(j) the arrangements for funding, or contracting with, a religious organisation."
Lord Alton of Liverpool: I tabled Amendment 58ZA as a practical response to a real and growing problem. Although I attended much of the Second Reading debate on the Bill, I was unable to remain until the end and observed the convention not to speak at that time. Having followed the Committee proceedings with great interest, I recognise that there is a great deal in the Bill which ought to commend itself to the House. The noble Baroness the Leader of the House-as she has demonstrated again today-and others in the team who have been dealing with this Bill have shown great sensitivity and reasonableness in dealing with some of the issues that noble Lords have raised.
I am sure that the Government realise that there is growing apprehension in the churches and among religious believers of all faiths about how parts of the legislation may impact on them-concerns which are reflected beyond the faith communities. I commend to the Committee today's article in the Times by the director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, which looks at this question from the point of view of personal liberties rather than that of religious faith.
My amendment seeks to address a key question on the balance that always has to be struck between religious freedom on the one hand and how the exercise of that freedom impacts on the wider community. In moving this amendment to Schedule 3 which provides a list of exemptions related to education-I should declare that I am a governor of a Catholic school and that I have children in Catholic schools-I am advised by the Public Bill Office that this is the appropriate place to include these further exemptions, which have application both in schools and beyond.
The amendment adds to the list of exceptions which has been created in Clause 29 relating to religious discrimination in the provision of goods and services.
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My concern is that these provisions may be used, and indeed are already being used, by those whose intentions are hostile to Britain's Christian heritage. Others, who are more well meaning, may simply be labouring under the mistaken belief that stamping out religious discrimination means stamping out religion. Under the nomenclature and language of equality, this has led to countless, ludicrous examples of risible things which public and private bodies have done in recent years, all under the guise of equality. In 2008, two years after we first outlawed religious discrimination in goods and services, under the pretext of not causing offence, Oxford Council officials dropped "Christmas" from the title of the city centre celebrations. Instead of "Christmas", they substituted "Winter Light Festival". The banning or dilution of Christian festivals has been criticised not only by Christian leaders but also by Muslim and Jewish religious leaders. I enjoy the celebration of Hanukkah or Diwali, and I know of no Rabbi or Hindu leader who feels offended by my enjoyment of Christmas or Easter. Their complaint is usually about aggressive ideological secularisation.
In 2008, it was reported that a Yorkshire college had removed Christmas and Easter from its staff calendar in case they offended people. Instead, senior managers at Yorkshire Coast College in Scarborough in north Yorkshire said that the holidays would be referred to as "end-of-term breaks" in order to "increase inclusion and diversity". What next? Must we refer to the Sabbath as "the day that dare not speak its name" or the parish as "the collective"? Will we have to remove the names of saints from all the streets, towns or colleges that bear them? Before a public outcry, Perth Royal Infirmary was told to remove the communion table from its chapel after the NHS trust warned that it could offend non-Christians. However, it is not people of other faiths who are driving this agenda, and perhaps I may give the Committee an example.
Last October, a town councillor in Kendal in the north-west of England who is an atheist and a member of the National Secular Society threatened legal action because of the council's tradition of opening its meeting with a time of prayer, as we do in your Lordships' House and in another place. It was claimed that prayers would lead to some people feeling excluded. The councillor demanded that the prayers be scrapped or held in a different room. In an attempt to respond sensitively, Kendal Council voted to move the prayers to five minutes before the official start of their meeting, so
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Surely, in a truly tolerant and diverse society, we would not have to contend with such ideological hatred. You do not have to be religious to recognise this country's rich inheritance. Our Judaeo-Christian ideals are woven into the nation's fabric: its laws, its charitable endeavours, its schools, hospitals and hospices, its art and architecture, its culture and its spirituality. It is in all our political traditions. After all, faith in politics gave us Wilberforce, Shaftesbury, Gladstone, Keir Hardie and many others. This makes it all the more perplexing for me to encounter an ideological intolerance that seeks to marginalise religion, and Christianity in particular, not least because the majority of people in this country-almost three-quarters-still call themselves Christians. I am not arguing that we should force the Christian faith on those who do not hold it; I am simply arguing that evidence of the Christian faith in society, such as Bibles, prayers and the wearing of a cross, should not in itself be classed as discrimination.
Along with many others, I was outraged to read about the case of Nadia Eweida, a British Airways employee who was told to conceal a small silver cross which she wore around her neck. In today's Times, on page 26, Shami Chakrabarti, under the headline "Freedom must apply to all faiths and none", said:
and she refers specifically to this case. Worse still, she said that BA, having initially been confronted with Miss Eweida's complaint, instructed an international law firm strenuously to resist her claim of religious discrimination. What followed, says Miss Chakrabarti,
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: As another example, could the noble Lord explain which bit of the present law he thinks is coercive and incompatible with the views he has expressed-which I largely share-and why he thinks his amendment is therefore necessary?
Lord Alton of Liverpool: It is precisely because cases like the ones I have just described have come before the courts or tribunals that it is necessary to put in the Bill, in crisp language, exemptions so that when anyone takes up vexatious measures against people like the BA employee I have just referred to, that kind of case does not come before the courts. That is all I want to do. I do not think that common sense, let alone the law, should lead to these kinds of vexatious actions.
Let me give the noble Lord a further example, because I think we would probably be of one mind on this. This is about some elderly Protestant Christians in Pilgrim Homes, a 200 year-old charity that was set up by William Wilberforce, which meets physical and spiritual needs. It became locked in a public battle with Brighton Council after the council threatened to withdraw the £13,000 of public money that it gives the home unless the residents complied with a series of very invasive personal questions to do with personal issues including sexual orientation, which they were to be asked every three months.
Government guidance has also been given, for instance, to store Bibles in libraries on top shelves. Why? What is so offensive about scriptures being available to people who want to read them? It does not force them on people any more than the provision of a Gideon Bible does. There is a fairly systematic campaign afoot to ban public reference to the Christian faith, and laws such as the one we are enacting can become part of the armoury. I know that this is not the Government's intention, but they can help prevent such vexatious and discreditable attacks by putting proper safeguards in the Bill.
We live in a society that in the recent past has been known for its religious tolerance. We should be proud of this. This period of toleration began in 1829, when, after centuries of repression, Catholics saw emancipation in the repeal of penal laws, Test Acts and the Acts of Uniformity. Today, 6 million Catholics-10 per cent of the population-participate fully in the nation's public life. Emancipation of Jews followed very rapidly thereafter. In this week of Christian unity in Britain, we should celebrate the co-existence of contemporary Christians, and understand the lessons of past divisions and mutual intolerance, and the applicability of those lessons for dealing with the tensions that exist between different faiths, and those between faith and secular society. If instead of learning to celebrate our country's Christian story and its heritage, we try to deny it, we will be doing nothing to create a genuinely more plural or tolerant society and will probably only succeed in offending the Christian majority.
It is particularly significant that leaders of minority faiths argue for the importance of preserving this country's religious heritage. The Chief Rabbi-probably the greatest of our spiritual leaders in Britain today-in his magnificent book, The Home We Build Together,
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I was struck that when the University of Leicester NHS Trust considered banning Bibles from bedside lockers to avoid offending other faiths, Resham Singh Sandhu, the Sikh chairman of the Leicester Council of Faiths, said:
I have no doubt that the Government will offer a number of reassurances today, but they are no substitute for the crispness of law. Far from being otiose, my amendment would add four new exemptions, which would, I hope, halt the vexatious attacks that I have referred to. They would guarantee the right to celebrate or mark any religious festival; to display or present any holy book, religious symbol or religious object; and to say prayers or make arrangements for funding or contracting with a religious organisation. I have tried to do justice to the amendment and to set out the reasons why such provisions are needed. I beg to move.
Lord Waddington:My Lords,it is unfortunately the case that equality legislation, while giving certain people new rights, has deprived others of theirs. It has also been misinterpreted and misused, sometimes by troublemakers but more often by well-meaning and overenthusiastic people who only half understand the legislation that we have passed. It was obviously someone in the latter category who, in 2008, advised the council in Devon to stop opening its meetings with Christian prayers. When Governments embark on equality legislation they should remember not only that in a civilised society people should be able both to hold religious beliefs and express them but that any such legislation should spell out clearly what is and is not unlawful.
The purpose of paragraph 11 of Schedule 3, as I understand it, is to allow local authorities to support denominational schools without being accused of discriminating against those of different denominations and different faiths. Unfortunately, while spelling out some ways in which the religious character of a school can be maintained, it omits other rights that in my view should be safeguarded to prevent the ethos of a school being undermined. In view of what has happened recently, our fears that the ethos of church schools may be undermined cannot be said to be groundless.
Christianity is part of our heritage and Christian principles have played a key part in the formation of our society, culture and laws, so one might have thought it inconceivable that anyone would want to stop the recognition of Christmas. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, has already drawn attention to the fact that a college in Scarborough recently decided to do just that and remove Christmas and Easter from its staff calendar. He also referred to the bizarre antics of Oxford Council which, in 2008, dropped Christmas and substituted a winter light festival.
This amendment is concerned with local authorities; there have already been too many cases when local authorities have tried to prevent teachers and others expressing their faith. There was the school receptionist in Crediton, in Devon, who, after learning that her daughter had been told off for speaking about her faith in school, sent an e-mail to friends asking them to pray about the matter. She was accused of misconduct and was disciplined. There was the Somerset maths teacher who was dismissed for offering to pray for one of her pupils who was too ill to come to school and actually too ill to have lessons at home. Surely if there is to be a list of actions with regard to church schools and actions within church schools such as the organisation of acts of worship, which should not be considered unlawfully discriminatory, that list should be very much more complete. It would certainly help, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has said, to stop vexatious attacks on those who practise Christianity, the religion in which the vast majority of the people in this country were brought up and which most consider their own, even if they do not attend church. For that reason alone, the amendment is surely worthy of support.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: I, of course, share many of the sentiments of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, about some of the ludicrous examples that he has given. I very much hope, as does Shami Chakrabarti, that the appeal be won in relation to British Airways-it is sub judice, but I think I can say that. Having said all that, and although I am not a Christian, I say "Happy Christmas" all the time-when it is Christmas time-and I totally deplore the political incorrectness of the ignorant who say "winter lights" instead of Christmas, and so on.
To come back to the law, we are talking about the exception to Clause 29, which deals with religious discrimination, among others, general discrimination in the provision of services to the public and religious discrimination. I assume, however much we may support the established church, that most of us believe that those who adhere to other religions are also entitled to be treated as individuals on the basis of their religious beliefs and not to be discriminated against. What kind of exception is appropriate to a law which creates a right not to be discriminated against, among other things, on the grounds of religion?
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