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19 Jan 2010 : Column 890

"Section 29, so far as relating to religious or belief-related discrimination, does not apply in relation to anything done in connection with-

(a) the curriculum of a school;

(b) admission to a school which has a religious ethos;

(c) acts of worship or other religious observance organised by or on behalf of a school (whether or not forming part of the curriculum);

(d) the responsible body of a school which has a religious ethos;

(e) transport to or from a school;

(f) the establishment, alteration or closure of schools".

All those provisions are there to deal with the kind of points that the noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Waddington, have made. The Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which, until recently, I was a member, produced a vast and comprehensive report on the Bill. I will not take time now in boring or detaining noble Lords by reading paragraphs 215 to 220 on pages 72 and 73, which I commend to the Committee. In those parts of the Joint Committee's unanimous report, attention was drawn to what it had said about the previous sexual orientation regulations. Concern was expressed at the risk of the exemption for the content of the curriculum leading to unjustifiable discrimination being even greater under the broader exemption contained in the Bill-in other words, the one I have just read out. To make it short, the committee expressed understanding and sympathy for,

It said, as does the noble Lord, Lord Alton:

"We agree that schools ought not to be distracted by having to justify in legal proceedings the inclusion in the curriculum of particular works of literature, for example. However, we continue to have the concerns we expressed in our report on the Sexual Orientation Regulations, that exempting the content of the curriculum from the duty not to discriminate means, for example, that gay pupils will be subjected to teaching that their sexual orientation is sinful or morally wrong".

The committee continued:

"It is the content of the curriculum (the teaching that homosexuality is wrong), not its presentation, that is discriminatory. We therefore recommend that the exemption for the content of the curriculum be confined to the scope of the existing exemption, and not extended to other protected characteristics".

It was arguing not to go any further than one would here.

I apologise for taking so long, but against that background, I turn to the amendment tabled in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Waddington. I do not want to get into even deeper waters, but "religion" and "religious" are, quite properly, not defined. The Church of Scientology, which I have professionally represented, would say that it is a religion, has prayers and is a religious organisation, as would many other new religions or cults. The widening of the exemption beyond its already great width would be completely unnecessary, create more ambiguity and give rise to the very problems that the Joint Committee on Human Rights worried about so far as, for example, gay people are concerned. I hope that the Government will oppose this amendment as strongly as we do.

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The Lord Speaker: It might be helpful to the Committee if I remind it that no application has been made or granted to lift the sub judice rule in relation to any case relevant to the discussions this afternoon, so the sub judice rule applies.

The Lord Bishop of Winchester: I am grateful for the Lord Speaker's wise advice. I welcome the existing range of sub-paragraphs (a) to (f) of paragraph 11, and I welcome this amendment, not only for its detail but for the sense of the need to put down some markers that underlies it. I suspect that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, would agree with me that no church school should be teaching that homosexuality is wrong or making general statements about orientation. That is not the view of the Christian churches, which are concerned about certain sexual behaviour. It is important to put that right.

I want to speak about the underlying trends that many of us, like the noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Waddington, note. They are energetically represented in the correspondence that comes over my desk and, I suspect, those of my friends on these Benches and many others. There is a sense in society, if one can speak of such a thing, that non-faith or, in some of the implications of the Bill, one should say non-religious faith, is the norm. It is uncontroversial, undogmatic, unideological and how everyone ought to be. In fact, it is how everybody is, except for what is often an exaggeratedly small number in such people's minds. Those people seem to be hugely represented in the media, for instance, and, sometimes, in your Lordships' House and the other place. This non-faith is the norm, uncontroversial and non-ideological, except for the reality of an exaggeratedly small number of eccentrics. Religious faith and practice appears to be viewed in many places as abnormal, exceptional, deviant, as if it alone is ideological and controversial and, for a whole range of reasons, undesirable. Your Lordships may think that that is wildly exaggerated, but that is how very many people of faith, Christians and others, feel. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, quoted the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, who is a very distinguished man. This is how many people feel. They write to us and to others. They note cases, some of which are sub judice, and I shall not mention any of them by name.

As I watch this happening-and I come up against it in a range of places, including from time to time in your Lordships' House-it seems to be a thread that is at risk of running through the equality and diversity agenda. In fact, in my observation it does run through it; that fundamentally admirable agenda is often popularly followed out in many a town hall, in a significant element of the lower echelons of many police forces, at the more rarefied level of parts of this Bill, in Parliament, and even, if I dare say so, in some of the judgments handed down by the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

My concern is for Christians, for the churches, for members of other faiths and their attempts to do what any honest believer would by not keeping their faith in some little box, only getting it out at home or with fellow believers. There is also a much greater danger for our society in that we could reach a point where Christians, and peoples of other faiths too, find it

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increasingly difficult to survive in the public service, and, indeed, in Parliament. A Member of the other place is reported very recently as saying that people who hold Christian views really ought to consider whether they should be working in the public services.

Lastly, there is a danger that a Government, of whatever complexion, who are coming to rely ever more heavily on faith-based social and voluntary and caring services, may find themselves making it impossible for bodies coming from a faith perspective into social service, which is often for the most deprived and needy people, to continue.

I suspect that we may come back to this next Monday. I hope that the Committee will consider the detailed issues raised in the amendment and those issues of principle and principled practice.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: Can the right reverend Prelate, the Bishop of Winchester, explain to me whether he is then opposed to Clause 29, which guarantees that in the provision of services there should be no discrimination on the basis of religion and belief? Would he rather that that provision was not there? Why does he think that the wide exception that I have quoted is insufficient?

The Lord Bishop of Winchester: I am grateful to the noble Lord for asking that question. I am very happy about Clause 29 with the material that is in the clause about which we are speaking. I am happy that at a range of points in this Bill, in relation to Clause 29 and in other places, the Government have made it clear that they are gathering together existing legislation, rather than either repealing it or tightening it, noose-like. The difficulty that some of us have with the material with which we will be dealing next Monday is that whereas the Government are asserting that they have not changed anything in the existing legislation, others among us believe that it has been very significantly tightened. I hope that is a sufficient answer for the noble Lord.

Lord Warner: Can the right reverend Prelate explain why he thinks that there should not be some limitation on any religious organisation, which is what he seemed to be implying, that is taking taxpayers' money for the provision of services?

The Lord Bishop of Winchester: This would take us into quite another issue. To what extent are your Lordships' House and the other place, the court of Parliament, prepared to work at holding intention regarding competing rights-indeed, competing tracts in this Bill? That seems to be the issue that faces us time after time.

4 pm

Baroness Warsi: My Lords, we have heard an extremely interesting speech from the noble Lord, Lord Alton, which has called attention to many examples of what can happen when the principles of so-called equality are applied in extreme cases. He referred to the Oxford case, the Yorkshire college case and the case of where

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prayers are held five minutes early. That particular example is interesting. In this House, for example, prayers are held and people have a choice in whether they want to attend. As a person of the Muslim faith, I regularly attend those prayers, which are a moment for reflection. I think that the point that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, was making in the example he gave was that there was no choice. Effectively the meeting started at the time that it should have started. Those who were the exception were not those choosing not to be there but those who were choosing to be there. The exception was applied against the religious community, which is an important point to note.

Extremes can result in a restriction of religious freedom. Many faith-based organisations do important work for their communities while retaining a distinct religious character. We are concerned that the Bill may restrict their ability to do this and therefore that it could represent a misguided attack on religious groups. I am sure that many of us will remember the publication in February 2009 of guidance from the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, which answered to Andy Burnham, the then Culture Secretary. I am not sure whether the noble Lord, Lord Alton, is referring to the same example. That department advised that as Muslims in Leicester wanted the Koran moved to the top shelves in libraries, because of the Islamic belief that it is the sacred word of God, the Bible too should be moved to the top shelf. This was, as the guidance stated, so that,

Will the Minister concede that this demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of equality legislation and the shape of religious beliefs? Surely the Minister does not believe that in order to achieve equality there must be a one-size-fits-all approach. In Protestant Christianity-I stand to be corrected by the many who are more learned in this field than I am-the importance of the Bible as the word of God is not simply that it is a sacred text that must be kept higher than any other text; it is that it must be an accessible scripture which anyone should be able to look at. Therefore it should not be assigned to the top shelf. Achieving equality is more complicated than finding a way to treat everything in exactly the same way.

We are a society made up of individuals with a range of different beliefs. The pursuit of equality should be the pursuit of a situation where people are allowed to cherish their individual beliefs safe in the knowledge that they will not be castigated or discriminated against for holding them. It does not, however, mean that the differences should be steamrollered out altogether. Equality achieved by making everyone the same is not real equality. Equality should mean that differences are embraced and not removed. That is why I am troubled when we hear about the legacy of Labour's Britain, where a community nurse can be suspended for offering to pray for a patient's recovery or-as in the example referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington-a school receptionist can face disciplinary action for sending an e-mail to friends asking them to pray for her daughter. Will the Minister tell the Committee

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how measures in pursuit of equality seem to have been subsumed into a quest to remove any freedom of religious expression?

On a personal note, as a woman of Asian descent who practises Islam and who was born into an economically challenged background, I could argue that I have everything to gain from an overzealous approach to equality. I would probably tick most boxes. Does the Minister accept that this overzealous pursuit of equality can cause a backlash for ethnic minority communities? Much of this overzealous activity is not done by ethnic minority religious communities but in the name of those communities. Thus they, too, fall victim of this overzealous approach which is done in their name. Does the Minister accept that this creates a sense of unease in our communities and does not accord with the Government's so-called pursuit of community cohesion?

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned an article by Shami Chakrabarti, a lady whom I hold in high regard, and he indentified an extremely important issue, as did she-the state's continual encroachment on our private lives. We must ensure that the Bill does not do that.

Lord Mackay of Clashfern: My Lords, I congratulate the Government on holding fast to their clause which is subject to the amendment. The criticism of it by the Joint Committee on Human Rights is not well founded.

I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, that many of the examples that we have had cited to us are really quite extraordinary and in no way based on the law as we have it. The sooner that that is manifest, the better it will be for all of us. There are just too many of them, and they are not all one-sided either-they go in every possible direction. The sooner that this stops, the better it will be. I am not sure that I can practically address exactly how to stop it, but I believe that it can be addressed to some extent in the guidance that the Government will offer on the Equality Bill when, as I hope, it becomes law.

As for the funding of public services provided by religious institutions, the Government are funding, with taxpayers' money, the service that the institutions provide. In all cases that I can imagine, the Government think that it is perfectly reasonable that adoption agencies, care agencies and so on are provided with government money because the care, adoptions and so on, are services that the Government wish. The fact that there is a variety of them with a variety of religious ethos-I am not too sure of the proper plural-is helpful. There are a lot of different people in our community, and some can benefit from one type of religious services and others from other types.

The noble Lord, Lord Lester, said that there was no definition of religion in the Bill. In a sense there is, because it says that "religion" includes no religion, and "belief" includes having no belief. In a sense, that is a kind of definition; it may not take you very far, but at least it is there.

The Government may feel that the amendment is unnecessary. I am not sure what their attitude will be. However, a clear statement by Her Majesty's Government from the Dispatch Box that the amendment is unnecessary would serve quite a good purpose.

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Baroness Thornton: My Lords, the primary focus of the amendment in the name of the noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Waddington, is on the education exceptions in Schedule 3, but, as drafted, it is not confined to that. I will explain why and perhaps address some of the issues that noble Lords raised in the debate.

Schedule 3 and paragraph 11 of that Schedule are related to things done in schools. Although the noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Waddington, have made it clear that their concerns relate to education, the amendment's effect would be to apply it to bodies carrying out public functions more widely, as other noble Lords have suggested.

The exceptions for religion or belief in the Bill are based on those in existing legislation. We argued through those in detail in relation to the Equality Act 2006. They have been in force for some years now and appear, by and large, to be working well. I have already returned to some of the instances that have been mentioned. We have not been faced with complaints and legal cases in relation to schools or the local authorities that support them or, indeed, more widely. There is currently no case for extending them.

I assure noble Lords that nothing in the Bill is going to outlaw the celebration of any religious festival. Nor does anything in the Bill make unlawful the display of a religious book or artefact. Even if there were a question about this in a schools context, the exceptions for faith schools in paragraph 5 of Schedule 11 recognise that there will be some differences in the ways in which such schools deliver education to children of different faiths.

The amendment seeks to exempt the saying of prayers, but sub-paragraph (c) of the same paragraph already exempts acts of worship in schools, which would clearly cover prayers. The final section of the amendment-which refers to the arrangements for funding or contracting with a religious organisation-makes no particular sense to us in the context of an education authority. I can see no reason why a local education authority should need or want to discriminate on religious grounds when awarding a contract of any kind, so that it would be appropriate to provide an exception to such discrimination.

The exemptions in place at the moment are specifically for schools because of the particular issues around religion or belief that arise in a schools context given, in particular, the part played by faith schools in our system and the approach to organised worship in schools more generally. These, as I said, were covered in great length in 2006 when the Equality Bill, as it then was, was discussed. They are now well understood.

We do not believe that there is any need to introduce further exceptions more widely. First on the list in this regard is the banning of Christmas-that myth has been mentioned by several noble Lords. It never has been and never will be discrimination to celebrate Christmas or any other religious festival-the wording of the discrimination provisions would not allow that. Nor is it easy to believe that the recipient of a public service could claim that they were receiving less favourable treatment solely because a religious artefact or a copy of a holy book is on display in the place where the service is being provided.

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The noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, spoke with great wisdom about the top-shelf issue. I absolutely accept her point and the wider point about one size not fitting all. In a way, that is the whole point of this legislation and of the exceptions. The proposed exception for the saying of prayers perhaps raises different issues. Prayers take place in schools but parents have the right to withdraw their children from such acts of worship should they wish to do so. I cannot envisage a situation where it would be appropriate for the provider of a public service to impose prayer on recipients of a service, but nor do I believe that a discrimination case would succeed if, for example, the staff of a church group contracted to deliver a public service shared a quiet moment of prayer at the beginning of the working day. The point must be that it should not be inflicted on unwilling participants and there should be no discrimination against anyone who refuses to take part.

As for the exemption for arrangements for funding or contracting with a religious organisation, I think the argument against works both ways. An organisation offering services of a public nature should not be allowed arbitrarily to pick and choose contractors on the basis of religion or belief, and thus neither to refuse to contract with a business just because of religion or belief nor to prefer one business over another because of it. In some cases, there may be a genuine need for a religious "aspect" to a particular contract-for example, a local authority that contracts out its provision of care for the elderly in an area with a large Jewish community may well choose to use the services of both a Jewish care home and a secular care home. The Bill, via the general exceptions in Schedule 23, would allow that because it enables religious or belief organisations that meet the qualifying criteria to limit their provisions to people who have a particular faith or belief.

I recognise that several noble Lords will be aware of a matter that is related to this debate that is before the Court of Appeal today-the case of Ms Eweida, who was suspended from work. It would, of course, be inappropriate for me to comment on this case in advance of the outcome of the appeal being determined. However, in principle people should be able to choose what they wear and how they dress, subject to any valid restrictions that may be appropriate for employers or any other organisation to impose-for example, for safety or hygiene reasons. What is clear is that any such restrictions need to be a proportionate and reasonable response to dealing with this sort of sensitive issue.

The Equality Bill embraces the cultural diversity of UK society. It is ridiculous to suggest that anyone should stop referring to Christmas or any other religious festival, and local authority tenants will not be asked to take down their Christmas lights. There is nothing in the Bill to stop local authorities or their tenants putting up Christmas trees or lights, or from celebrating any other religious festival such as Diwali, Eid or Hanukkah.

4.15 pm

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