I have today published the Government’s Response to the consultation “Getting Equal” and laid before Parliament the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007. The new Regulations will outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in the provision of goods, facilities, services, education, the disposal and management of premises and in the exercise of public functions in Great Britain.
They will tackle practical barriers and real everyday problems. For example, they will make it unlawful for a shopkeeper or a restaurant to refuse to serve someone because of their sexual orientation, or a school to discriminate against a student because of his or her parents’ sexual orientation.
Our consultation on these issues has been extensive and has provided evidence that this kind of unfair treatment takes place far too often. The goal of the new regulations is to make such discrimination illegal.
While the case for this new legislation was widely accepted, opinion was divided on the issue of how the Regulations ought to balance the competing rights of individuals to hold and manifest a religious belief against the rights of lesbian, gay and bisexual people to live free from discrimination.
It is exactly because of these complex issues about how to reconcile potentially competing rights and freedoms that the Government consulted so extensively on these measures.
I have listened carefully to the many points raised, and I believe that the balance we have reached—which is the same as that achieved in the Northern Ireland Regulations and endorsed by the Joint Committee on Human Rights—is the right one. Our approach will ensure that nobody will be required to act in a way that contravenes their core religious beliefs, but where religious organisations enter into an agreement to provide services to the wider community, on behalf of and under contract to a public authority, the rights of lesbian, gay and bisexual people to have equal access to those services comes to the fore. This is in line with the conclusions reached by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, in its recent Legislative Scrutiny report on the Sexual Orientation Regulations.
Specific concerns were expressed about the application of the Regulations to the adoption and fostering sector. The Prime Minister addressed these issues in his statement of 29 January 2007, when he acknowledged the excellent and valuable work undertaken by faith-based adoption agencies and announced that, in the interests of vulnerable children, the regulations will provide for a transition period for these agencies until the end of 2008. In the interim, any agency wishing to take advantage of the transitional arrangements will have to refer gay, lesbian and bi-sexual people to agencies who are able to assist. In addition, the Prime Minister announced that he would be commissioning an ongoing independent assessment of the issues agencies would need to address in the transition period, if much valued and needed services are to be retained and developed.
In a similar spirit, the Regulations will include an exemption in relation to insurance that will have the same effect as provisions in the Sex Discrimination Act and regulations made under the Disability Discrimination Act. It is our intention that this particular exemption will not apply beyond the end of 2008. We will work with the insurance industry and others to ensure that if any exemption is required beyond 2008, it reflects a genuine need in the industry and is in line with industry best practice, and we will legislate accordingly.
Subject to Parliamentary approval, the new Regulations will come into force on 30th April, 2007, at the same time as similar protections on grounds of Religion or Belief, set out in Part 2 of the Equality Act 2006.
The Government’s Response will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses.