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Equality Bill

Volume 489: debated on Tuesday 10 March 2009

2. What safeguards she plans to include in the equality Bill to protect employees and service users against discrimination by religious organisations providing public services. (261695)

Existing legislation already protects employees and service users against discrimination based on sexual orientation, race, disability, sex, gender reassignment, and religion or belief; it also protects employees on the ground of age. The equality Bill will maintain all that and extend protection on the ground of age to the provision of goods and services. Religious organisations providing public services are subject to the requirements of discrimination law in the same way as other organisations, save for very limited exceptions designed to ensure that people’s rights to hold or manifest a belief are not interfered with. Religious organisations carrying out public functions will be fully subject to the new equality duty.

I am grateful to the Minister for her answer. Does she accept, however, that there is concern among people in the lesbian and gay community, for example, that as employees of organisations that are tendered out to religious organisations—as the Government propose, not unreasonably—they might be the victims of discrimination? Is she at least willing to meet people from that community—and, indeed, from religious organisations—in an attempt to reassure them that the legislation that she describes will have an impact and prevent this kind of discrimination?

Yes, of course. I will be very happy to meet anyone with concerns about what we are proposing to do. The hon. Gentleman will recall that we have already spent an extra period of time consulting on this particular provision. In July, we announced that we were unsure whether to proceed with the requirement that we should fully implement the entire duty in favour of religious organisations. We then consulted 11 religious and non-religious organisations and re-consulted 20-odd public authorities. We also took in the views of four lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups and women’s groups. There was more or less a clear consensus that the provision should progress in the way that I have set out, and that there were no major problems with it, but if, despite that, there are still concerns, of course I will see people again.

Is my hon. and learned Friend aware that the women working in the Church—particularly women clergy; I have had a case in my constituency—do not have the same safeguards against discrimination and harassment in the Church? Will she therefore work with the Church Commissioners and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, which has a working party on this subject, to ensure that women clergy and vicars are protected against discrimination and harassment at work?

Yes. I suppose that this question deals primarily with religious organisations delivering public services, and, in that situation, they will be entirely subject to the whole of the law. But, of course, if there are workers who are entitled to bring discrimination and harassment claims against Churches, we must ensure that they are adequately protected against that kind of unacceptable treatment.

Will the Minister accept that there must be a sensible balance in this debate? There are many religious organisations that provide valuable public services, but they have long-standing, genuine, sincere beliefs and philosophies. It would be a great shame if, for whatever reason, they had to stop providing those public services. There is always an alternative organisation to help those people who feel that they might be discriminated against. Should there not be a balance in a sensible country?

In a sense, there is a balance, in that if it is a genuine occupational requirement that someone should, for instance, adhere to a particular religion—a vicar in the case of Christianity—an exception is made for such a thing, but it is really not conceivable that we can allow public functions to be delivered in a discriminatory way.

Does the Minister share my concern that equality legislation is in danger of being brought into disrepute by cases such as that of nurse Caroline Petrie, who was disciplined for offering to pray for her patients. Do we not need to tackle the concern of many with religious beliefs, and of Christians in particular, who themselves say that they are facing increased discrimination?

I do not think that that question was about the equality legislation that we are bringing into force. Clearly, everybody has to behave in a balanced and sensible way, and the whole point of the legislation is to promote good cultural relations and good relations among people of all kinds and all faiths. We will drive on with that purpose.