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Equality Bill (Religious Groups)

Volume 504: debated on Thursday 28 January 2010

2. What recent discussions she has had with religious groups on the provisions of the Equality Bill. (313702)

Ministers in this House—in particular my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Government Equalities Office—and Ministers in the Lords have had a number of discussions with religious and belief groups and have received a number of representations relating to religion or belief since the introduction of the Equality Bill. Such discussions and representations are ongoing.

Will the Minister finally admit that were it not for the successful amendment from Baroness O’Cathain in the House of Lords earlier this week, the Equality Bill as unamended would have further restricted employment for people working in religious organisations?

No, it would not. We thought that it would be helpful for everyone involved to clarify the law, and that is what the amendment that we brought forward aimed to do. That amendment was rejected. However, it would be helpful for the House to understand that there are religious jobs and non-religious jobs within organisations. For example, I would say that a pensions assistant ensuring that the records database is kept up to date was not doing a religious job. I would also say that issuing and processing invoices, even if it is done in the employment of the Church of England, is not a religious job.

To make it clear, the law applies to religious organisations when they employ people in non-religious jobs in the same way that it does to everyone else. We have always been clear that we are not going to insist on non-discrimination in relation to religious jobs such as being a vicar, a bishop, an imam or a rabbi. The law has stepped back from that and said that religious organisations can decide themselves how to do that. However, when it comes to non-religious jobs, those organisations must comply with the law, and that is how the law remains.

The Minister will know that before the Government’s defeat, her Bill as unamended did not even make it clear that ministers of religion would have to live in accordance with the faith of their religion. Following the Government’s defeat in the other place not once but three times, by a coalition led by Conservative peers, bishops and Cross Benchers, the Bill has been improved. Can the Minister confirm that the Government will accept the decision in the other place to enable Churches to insist that key posts be held by those who live in accordance with the tenets of their faith, or will she seek to reverse that defeat in this House?

I think that the hon. Gentleman is trying to perpetrate a further misunderstanding. We are absolutely clear that we have never intended to extend the non-discrimination provisions to ministers of religion, nor have we ever tried to do so. Therefore they are exempted. We have always made it absolutely clear that they are and will continue to be exempted from the non-discrimination laws, and we have not sought to change that. There has been an issue about what is or is not a religious job, and we sought to clarify that. Our helpful clarification was not regarded as helpful in the House of Lords, and therefore the amendment was defeated. We will consider how to respond to that, but an official announcement will be made in due course, once these things have gone through the machinery, as it were. However, I would reassure hon. Members that the policy will remain as it is, and I would not want to lead them to anticipate that it will be brought forward again in this House.