Consideration of Lords amendments
The amendments in this first group all relate to the scope of the Bill and are either concessionary or clarificatory. They are fairly random in their subject matter, so I shall take them in numerical order.
Lords amendment 1 provides a power to add caste as a subset of race, which is covered by clause 9. The case for legislating against caste discrimination has been argued with passion during the Bill’s passage by Members of this House and in the other place. We have seen a good deal of evidence that caste can affect how people in Britain are treated, but the evidence has largely been about discrimination in relation to personal or social situations—for instance, the choice of who a person should marry—that are well outside the scope of discrimination law.
The small amount of mainly anecdotal evidence of caste discrimination occurring in areas covered by the Bill—employment, education and the provision of services, for example—emerged late in the day, when the Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance published a report last November. The Government acted on that report and asked the Equality and Human Rights Commission to undertake further in-depth research, but it did not wish to do so. We immediately commissioned the National Institute of Economic and Social Research to undertake further research into the nature and extent of the problem. That research is under way, and it involves talking to a wide range of community stakeholders and conducting detailed face-to-face interviews with about 35 people who claim to have experienced caste discrimination. The report from this in-depth study is due in August.
Will the Minister explain whether this provision is to be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure? I am looking at clause 199, and I do not see that any requirement for such a provision—including a power to amend the Act—to be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. It is bad enough to have a Henry VIII clause, let alone this.
I am pleased to be able to intervene on my hon. and learned Friend as chair of the Dalit Solidarity Network trustees. I welcome the amendment and her response to it. Will she tell us who will evaluate the report that she has commissioned, and when she expects that evaluation to be complete so that whoever is the Minister at that time can introduce the necessary regulations?
The process should be that the report comes out in August and if there is evidence—we intend to disclose and discuss it with all the stakeholders that brought the issue to our attention—amendment 1 would ensure that, if necessary, we could introduce an amendment through secondary legislation to include race and caste in the definitions. I hope that my hon. Friend finds that process acceptable. It is, of course, a precautionary measure, as it were, because we do not yet know what the research will show. We have every intention, now that we have some evidence, of plumbing to the depths to decide whether there is a need to legislate to protect another subset of persons.
I move swiftly on to deal with school issues through amendments 2 and 29 to clauses 17 and 84, which are about protecting pregnant schoolgirls and young mothers from discrimination in school. Already in place are duties on schools and local authorities to provide suitable education for all children. There is guidance for schools on the issue of school-age parents, which we initially felt was sufficient to provide protection for girls who got pregnant at school without extending discrimination law in this area. However, we have listened to the concerns raised and we are now prepared to extend protection from discrimination here as well to provide clarity and certainty.
To move briefly into party politics, amendments 34 to 36 amend clauses 104 and 105, dealing with the selection of candidates by political parties. They add an explicit proportionality test for the positive action that might be taken to reduce inequality in our democratic institutions. Action might be taken, for instance, to encourage greater participation by people from black and ethnic minority communities through proportionality; it might, for example, be proportionate to target extra training, mentoring or funding to prospective candidates from under-represented groups, but not to provide such support only to them to the exclusion of others. However, this proportionality test will not apply to the time-limited legislation to permit all-women shortlists, because we feel that the time limiting, until 2030, is already a proportionate way of tackling the serious and continued under-representation of women in Parliament and other elected institutions.
Still on the subject of party politics, amendments 37, 38, 63, 106 and 111 arise out of a recommendation from the Speaker’s Conference. They would insert a new clause 106, which would give Ministers power to require registered political parties to publish data relating to the diversity of candidates seeking selection. The point is to help to disclose any under-representation with a view to identifying barriers that might be causing it. Let me be clear that nothing in the provision will require a potential candidate to disclose any personal information he or she does not wish to disclose, and that the requirement to publish will apply only to anonymised data from which nobody can be identified.
I want to make some progress, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind.
Following full consultation, including with political parties, the Electoral Commission and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, regulations will set out among other things which protected characteristics must be reported on, when, for what period the data are to be published and in respect of which elections and which political parties. This means that the requirements can be flexible and responsive to changing circumstances. For instance, it will be possible to require just large political parties to report and for the reports to cover only sex and race and only in respect of general elections. As I say, the details will be the subject of full consultation before any requirements are imposed.
Turning to deal with civil partnerships, amendments 53, 85 and 112 would insert new provisions into the Bill to amend the Civil Partnership Act 2004. They would remove the express prohibition on civil partnerships taking place in religious premises. This change applies only to England and Wales because civil partnership is devolved and any decision on this issue for Scotland and Northern Ireland would be a matter for them.
These amendments were tabled in the other place on Report by Lord Ali and pressed to a Division. The Government allowed a free vote because it seemed to us to raise a matter of religious freedom and conscience. The vote was won in the Lords, and once the other place had made it clear that it intended the amendment to be accepted, we assisted to make sure that it would be effective. Let me make it clear that no religious group or denomination will be forced to open their place of worship to civil partnership if it does not want to; no proprietor of religious premises or religious denomination will be liable for discrimination if they do not post civil partnership registrations on their premises. That has to be applied for in order for such premises to be used for civil partnerships; it is left that way around, and the regulations governing the approval will be able to say, for instance, who can make an application on behalf of which denomination, and clearly that can be done only with proper consultation. A couple who wanted to register their civil partnership in a church that had not been approved for it could not do so, therefore, and they could not require a denomination to seek approval to enable it.
On harassment, amendments 82 and 84 would amend the general interpretation clause to make it clear for the avoidance of doubt that where harassment is not explicitly prohibited, for example in harassment related to religion, belief or sexual orientation in school, protection is none the less available through the provisions prohibiting direct discrimination by subjecting a person to a detriment. Therefore, a pupil who is harassed, in the commonly understood sense of the word, by a teacher as a result of his or her religion, belief or sexual orientation, can bring a claim for direct discrimination if the treatment causes that pupil to suffer a detriment.
An amendment opposed to this Lords amendment has been tabled by the hon. Members for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) and for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), which would mean that in those areas where harassment is not specifically prohibited, a person bullied because of his or her religion or belief will not have a remedy under the Bill. Imagining that the motivation behind their amendment is a concern that even the current approach makes it too easy for those with religious sensitivities to complain, let me say that in the case of employment the specific definition of harassment for religion or belief has been in place since 2003, and in the case of goods and services the detriment element of the definition of religious or belief discrimination has been in place since 2007, and in neither area has significant trouble or problem arisen. I am sure Members will agree that it will be better that, for instance, a Muslim schoolboy subjected to bullying by a school playground supervisor because of his religion should have a remedy. For this reason, I will ask the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady to withdraw their amendment.
I would be grateful if the hon. and learned Lady would just clarify why she felt this amendment was needed at all, if it has always been the case that there was this recourse to detriment. If that is so, what does this amendment that the Government inserted in the Lords add to the current position?
I think it makes it very much clearer, which is very important, especially for legislation that simply will not work unless it is accessible, comprehensible and understood by everybody who wants to be protected by it.
Amendments 90 and 108 on gender reassignment would amend schedules 3 and 24 to make it clear that it is not unlawful discrimination for a minister of religion to refuse to solemnise the marriage of a person if he or she reasonably believes the person has undergone gender reassignment. These amendments take account of the different arrangements governing marriages in the Church of England and the Church in Wales, where ministers are required to marry qualifying couples, the corresponding arrangements in Scotland and the different arrangements applying to marriages in registered buildings and other religious marriages. That preserves the existing provision under the Marriage Act 1949, which might otherwise have been in doubt given the Bill’s extension of protection from gender reassignment discrimination to the exercise of public functions. That is a very specific provision.
Let me turn briefly to broadcasting. Amendments 91 and 109 amend schedules 3 and 24, in response to broadcasters’ concerns, simply to make it clear that nothing in the Bill is intended to undermine their editorial independence. The amendments put it beyond doubt that the services and public functions provisions do not apply to broadcasting and distribution of content services.
On the question of the editorial matters of the BBC, is the Minister satisfied that the rules regarding editorial policy embodied in the charter and in the guidelines adequately provide the degree of impartiality that is necessary in our present-day democracy? Does she think, perhaps, that the editorial policy needs to be tightened up?
Order. I apologise for interrupting the Minister, but I say to the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), who is an experienced and senior Member of the House and who is well able to make his point when he is on his feet, that he should not also seek to make it from his seat.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
Amendments 93 to 95 dip back into the religious world and the occupational requirement exception for organised religion in paragraph 2 of schedule 9—a paragraph and schedule with which we became very familiar in Committee. These amendments were opposed by the Government and would remove from the religious occupational requirements exception the proportionality test and the definition of the very narrow range of religious jobs that the exception covers. These elements, though, would remain implicit because they are in the current law. Although we regret that their lordships did not see the value of the clarifying provisions in the Bill and voted to accept these amendments, the fact remains that the Bill, as amended, has the same effect as the existing law. With that in mind, the Government have decided not to seek to reject these amendments.
Again, the hon. Members for Oxford, West and Abingdon and for Hornsey and Wood Green are resisting amendments 93 and 94, which remove the express proportionality test. I can only reiterate what they have heard me say many times before—there will be no reduction in protection as a result of the Lords amendments. We talked a lot in Committee about the High Court case—the Amicus case, as we call it. In the view of the High Court, the existing exception
“has to be construed purposively so as to ensure, so far as possible, compatibility with the Directive”
that underlies it. As a proportionality test is required by that directive, the exception must be construed compatibly with that. The removal of the express proportionality test will not change the legal effect of the exception.
The House might recall that it was mentioned on Report and Third Reading that the European Commission had delivered a reasoned opinion in November 2009 on two aspects of our implementation of this directive. We have now responded to that opinion, although the correspondence is kept confidential. However, as my noble Friend Baroness Royall explained on 25 January in the debate in Committee in the other place, we did not inform the European Commission that the Bill will amend regulation 7(3) of the 2003 regulations, which paragraph 2 of schedule 9 replaces, to bring the position into line with the directive. We did not say that because the existing legislation already complies with the directive. I ask the House to agree to these amendments.
It is worth saying briefly at the outset—for the avoidance of doubt, and particularly because the Minister for Women and Equality, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) goes around saying such things—that the Conservative party has never opposed the Bill. We are very pleased that it is nearing the end of its progress and that it will get Royal Assent before the House is dissolved. The reason for that is because it consolidates nine Acts of Parliament, 100 pieces of secondary legislation and 2,500 pages of guidance, and because it has been welcomed by many organisations as broadly simplifying and making more straightforward the existing law. What we have said is that we do not agree with three parts of the Bill. If we form the Government after the next election, we will not bring those three requirements—socio-economic duty, the mistaken way in which the Government are tackling equal pay, and positive action, which I shall mention later—into force.
The House will be pleased to know that I do not plan to speak to every amendment that the Solicitor-General has set out. I shall simply pick on one or two of them.
Before the hon. Gentleman does that, will he make it clear whether his position is the same as that expressed by his colleague, the shadow Home Secretary, that bed-and-breakfast owners should be entitled to exclude people on the ground of their sexual orientation? The Conservative party’s position on that issue, which relates to schedule 23, is not clear, but I think that lots of people would want to know what it is.
I am very pleased that the hon. Gentleman asked me that. I thought that someone would, and if it had not been him, I suspect that it would have been the Minister for Women and Equality, if she had been taking this business through, given that she cannot resist the opportunity to do so sometimes. I will be very clear. My hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) has said himself that he voted in favour of those sexual orientation regulations. He is content with the law as it is and he does not seek to change it. On that, he is in line with the rest of the party. We support that part of the Bill and we do not propose to change it. I think that is abundantly clear.
I have just set out my hon. Friend’s position. [Interruption.] No, it is what he said, and I have just made very clear the position of both my hon. Friend and the Conservative party. That is very clear and does not need repeating.
On Lords amendment 1 on caste, which I know the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) is interested in, the Solicitor-General made a very clear exposition of the need for the amendment. We discussed it in detail in Committee, and there was consensus that if there was clear evidence of harm and of a need for the measure, it made sense to have it in the legislation. I support having caste as a subset of race rather than inventing a new protected characteristic, and I think it would be sensible for whoever forms a Government after the next election to look very clearly at the evidence and to make a decision on that part of the legislation depending on whether there is evidence of harm.
On Lords amendments 34 to 38 on reporting the diversity of candidates, there was a very good debate in the House of Lords. My noble Friend, Baroness Morris of Bolton, set out our position clearly, and we are very happy to support the proposals. I had a good discussion with the Solicitor-General, and received assurances that talks would take place with all political parties about how this might happen. I am glad that she reiterated the proposition, which was echoed by the representatives of the three main parties, that having diversity reporting on gender and ethnicity probably made sense to start off with.
There are a number of other problems, however. You will be aware, Mr. Speaker, that just last week the Commons had the opportunity to discuss in Westminster Hall the report from your Speaker’s Conference on parliamentary representation. We had a good debate, led by the conference’s vice chairman, the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg), and we discussed some of the issues associated with difficulties in identifying candidates with a disability. Sometimes they are unwilling to be identified as disabled, and there are many problems in measuring disability. I therefore think that it probably makes sense to start off with reporting on gender and ethnicity. We can see how that works and whether it drives the necessary change before we consider reporting in other areas.
I want to touch on Lords amendments 93 to 95. For the avoidance of doubt, I must tell the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) that we will not support his motions to disagree with the Lords in their amendments 93 and 94 if he presses them to a vote.
We were very pleased that the Lords passed these three amendments, as we believed that the Government were narrowing the scope of the exemptions available to religious organisations. The Government said that that was not their position, but we thought that it was, so we can all be happy—we have changed the Bill, which the Government now say does what they intended in the first place.
In Committee, the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) pressed what is now Lords amendment 95 to a Division. We supported him and, although we were unable to win, I am pleased that these three amendments were moved in the House of Lords by my noble Friend Baroness O’Cathain. With her assistance, we were able to get support there to change the Bill, and I know that the Government have made the commitment that they will not try to change it back in this House.
It is worth noting that the bulk of Labour and Liberal Democrat peers voted not to change the law. Support came predominantly from Conservative peers, Cross Benchers and a number of the Lords Spiritual. Colleagues—certainly on our Conservative side of the House— may wish to let religious organisations in their constituencies know who stuck up for them when necessary in the upper House.
From a sedentary position, the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon asks about the gay communities in constituencies, but these measures are not purely about sexual orientation. For example, they allow a Church to require that a married priest conduct himself in accordance with his marriage vows and not be unfaithful to his wife. The measures are not about sexual orientation at all. To be fair, that was how the matter was reported by many of the news organisations, but that was not what they were about.
It is curious that the Government have not taken the opportunity to close the existing loophole on siblings’ ability to inherit, for example. A similar loophole in respect of gays and other minorities has been closed, and that is welcome, but does my hon. Friend know why the Government did not use this Bill to extend such rights to siblings? There is great support on both sides of the House for closing that long-standing loophole.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question, although I do not think that it affects any of these amendments. I understand her concerns, given the advent of civil partnerships: family members of people involved in such partnerships have not been able to understand why they cannot take advantage of inheritance tax rules. That is what I think that she is referring to, although I do not think that this Equality Bill is the right place to address her perfectly good questions. Perhaps they should be addressed elsewhere, and I am sure that she will raise them in future debates.
I shall draw my remarks to a close by saying that we welcome this group of amendments. If the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon presses any of his amendments to a vote, I am afraid that we will not support him.
First, I can assure the House that we will not press my amendments to a vote so, if they trust me, those hon. Members who are hanging around can relax. However, they all seem to be staying, which I guess is fair enough.
It is interesting to hear the Conservatives say they generally support the Bill.
I suspect the right hon. Lady speaks for a large number of her colleagues in the country as a whole. However, the Conservative Front-Bench speakers say that in general they do not oppose the Bill, and I believe them. They do not oppose it, because it is not a radical Bill. As the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) made clear, it is mainly a reorganising Bill, and it has missed huge opportunities to be much more radical. The Government cannot say both that the Bill is radical and that the Conservatives who support it are anti-equality. In many cases, the Conservatives are anti-equality, but the Bill is not the test that shows it—except in the three areas mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. It is unfortunate that even though the Bill was amended in the Lords it is not as strong as it could be in many respects.
I should like to press the hon. Member for Forest of Dean on the question about the shadow Home Secretary. If the shadow Home Secretary does not think the Bill should be changed, was he advocating that the law be ignored—an unusual position for a shadow Home Secretary—when he said that people should be able to exclude other people on the basis of sexual orientation? I fear that question will go unanswered.
We welcome Lords amendment 1. Members may recall that Liberal Democrats in this House first raised the issue. We did not have a great welcome from the Minister in Committee, but on reflection in the Lords, and thanks to the work of Lord Avebury and Lord Harries of Pentregarth, among others, the Government were persuaded to compromise, so we have a provision that is welcome as far as it goes.
There were a number of amendments on equal pay, including on comparators. The Government have accepted amendments proposed by my noble Friend, Lord Lester—or that they tabled following discussion with him. Those amendments are welcome because they improve the equal pay situation. However, we regret the fact that the pay audit provisions in the Bill are still weak, because we were unable to get a majority for amendments in the Lords, despite our best efforts. Of course, the Conservatives think that even measures requiring companies to carry out audits at a certain point go too far, which says a lot about the Conservative commitment to equality.
I particularly welcome Lords amendment 29, the Government’s concession on pregnancy in schools. The issue was raised in Committee in the House of Commons and I am pleased that the Government were persuaded that it was wrong not to make it explicit in the Bill that pregnant schoolgirls should not be exempted from some of the equality laws. That is important.
We welcome Lords amendments 34 to 38, which deal with diversity in the range of candidates. I endorse what has been said about the work of the Speaker’s Commission in that respect.
I have sympathy for the Government’s position, as expressed in the House of Lords, on civil partnerships on religious premises. It is not ideal to use the Equality Bill to change civil partnerships from being the equivalent of a same-sex civil marriage. The introduction of language about religious buildings or religious services would mean that there was no longer a read-across between civil marriage and civil partnership. The most effective way of dealing with what I recognise is a legitimate wish of people to have a religious aspect to their civil partnership would be to provide for same-sex marriage and amend the Marriage Acts. My party has been very clear: we think society has moved on sufficiently for the Government and the House to take a lead on that. It happens in other jurisdictions, and it is unfortunate that the Government will, as I suspect, leave office after 13 years without having been able to make an advance in that respect. Things are now made more complicated, in terms of what is civil about civil partnerships, by the fact that that had to be the necessary compromise.
Lords amendment 84 is the extra provision that the Government included. The reason why I express concern about that Lords amendment, especially as it relates to religion and belief, is to ensure that we have as much freedom of speech and expression as possible for religious people. The House has resisted, as has the House of Lords— rightly—a free-standing provision on harassment on the grounds of religion and belief in the delivery of services. Yes of course, in employment it is right and proper to have such a provision, but outside employment there are real concerns that if one enables people to take harassment proceedings on the basis of feeling that their dignity has been infringed or that they have been exposed to an offensive environment—that is the terminology of harassment law—it would mean that, for example, Christian hotel owners who display a poster, crucifix or some such thing in the public areas of their business where their customers will see it might well find themselves open to complaints that people are being harassed.
I will give way in a moment.
I know that such things are not covered by this provision, but I am concerned that it introduces such an offence by the back door, and will encourage such action by people who are over-sensitive to statements or expressions of belief by people who have strong religious feelings. Although I may not agree with the strong exposition of religious belief, I am second to none in my concern that that freedom of speech should be protected. If the Solicitor-General wants to intervene, as she indicated a moment ago, I would be grateful if gave an assurance that it is not her intention to include a harassment provision.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to intervene. He is utterly wrong, but he knows that, because he said this about six times in Committee, and I have told him six times that he is wrong. The case law is incredibly clear. For the sixth time, let me say that it is called Driskel v. Peninsula Business Services, and the Employment Appeal Tribunal made it clear that where the facts simply disclose hypersensitivity on the part of the applicant to conduct that was not perceived by the alleged discriminator as being to their detriment, there is no discrimination. I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman is terribly wrong.
That is completely wrong as well. The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that we had this very same debate on about 15 different amendments all the way through our consideration in Committee. Forgive me, but he is verging on the disingenuous by pretending that this is something new. It clearly and totally is not.
The suggested words, which appear in what would be clause 210(5) if we accepted the amendment, are completely new. At no point, because no hon. Member supported a free-standing religious harassment provision, was this debated in Committee. It was not even fully debated in the House of Lords. That is a symptom of what we have seen in the passage of this Bill, which is being rushed through at the very end of this Parliament.
I have crossed swords with the hon. Gentleman on a number of occasions in relation to religious susceptibilities. Is he saying that he believes that—quite rightly—Christians who wish, for example, to wear crucifixes round their necks should be entitled to do so in circumstances of the kind that he describes? Will he be quite explicit about that?
The hon. Gentleman invites me to make a distinction—I am happy to do so—between people’s ability to express their religious views wherever and whenever in employment, which, as the Court of Appeal has said, can be legitimately restricted without its being either direct or indirect discrimination. I urge him to read the Court of Appeal’s judgment in the case of Eweida from beginning to end, because it is absolutely clear on that point, but that is separate from what should concern all of us: the possibility of people who use a service—whether a public service or, particularly, a commercial service—taking offence at someone’s expression of religious views. We cannot have that, and despite the Minister’s normal bluster, she has not explained why, if this measure was not necessary, it has been brought in. A problem will be created when people read that the fact that there is no provision on harassment on the grounds of religion
“does not prevent conduct relating to that characteristic from amounting to a detriment for the purposes of discrimination within section 13”.
It might well be that a detriment is a higher threshold than that for a harassment claim, and that is dealt with in detail in an article by Michael Rubenstein in the March 2010 Equal Opportunities Review, which I commend to the Minister. The article points out, inter alia, that the threshold is not greatly different, and I am worried that even hypersensitive people whose cases would fail in the first instance will bring forward such cases because of sensitivity.
Much of the law in this area is based on matters that arise from the European convention on human rights and the Human Rights Act 1998. Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the strictures that the Lord Chief Justice gave in his speech to the Judicial Studies Board on 17 March about judges who were overindulging their enthusiasm for human rights law? Perhaps this is yet another example, and just as the hon. Gentleman suggested that I should read the case in question, I suggest that he might like to read what the Lord Chief Justice said only a few days ago.
I do not wish to go into that area, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker.
I want to draw my remarks to a close by dealing with the final area of concern: Lords amendments 93 to 95, and especially Lords amendments 93 and 94, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) and I have tabled motions to disagree. In normal circumstances, I would seek to press those motions, but in resisting the Lords I am—unusually for me—merely backing the Government’s position. The fact that the Government are not backing their own position is a sign that they have run out of the time, if not the energy, to say to the Lords that it is not acceptable for them to remove the proportionality requirement. That requirement is in the directive, and it should be made clear. It is extremely disappointing that Parliament is saying that it is acceptable for someone such as a youth worker in a church to be sacked because it is found that they are gay, even though they are doing a perfectly good job, and that there need be no proportionality.
I must challenge the hon. Gentleman on his use of the word “acceptable”. Many churches and religious organisations think that what they believe and what they do are inherently tied together, and it is impossible to say that someone is doing a job acceptably if they are working against the beliefs of that organisation.
There is a fundamental problem. It is absolutely right that religious organisations should have the exemption for jobs that the Government tried to set out clearly in paragraph 2(8) of schedule 9, which Lords amendment 95 removes. The Government amended the original poorly framed provision to make it even clearer, and it stated that the right to discriminate should be restricted essentially to priests and people who directly teach scripture. Youth workers, however, do not do that, and it is wrong to destroy the career of someone who has devoted their life to helping children purely on the basis of their sexual orientation when that has nothing to do with the delivery of their job.
It is unfortunate that the Government are facing infraction proceedings even on the existing measure, after we removed their attempt, as they put it, to clarify. The Government are right and the Conservatives are wrong about this being a sufficient narrowing of the exemption. That is why we opposed it. We thought the exemption should have been narrowed somewhat. The fact that the Government ended up being defeated on a measure that did not achieve what it should have achieved shows that this part of the Bill has been badly handled.
At this stage of the Parliament and at this hour, it is inappropriate to seek to divide the House on these matters, but I hope it is clear that the Liberal Democrats believe that although this is a good Bill, and that many of the measures in it are welcome, it could have gone much further in achieving the equality that many of us say we want to see, and which many of us believe is needed.
I shall speak to amendment 1, and welcome the Government’s acceptance of the Lords amendment. The background to it has been described, but the process started with representations received by a number of us from constituents and organisations such as the Dalit Solidarity Network and a series of temples across the country, led by the Shri Guru Ravi Dass temple in Southall, where representations were made to us about some of the horrendous implications of caste discrimination transposed from the Indian subcontinent to this country.
The matter was raised on Second Reading by Members across the House, and debated in Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) tabled an amendment to outlaw caste discrimination immediately. The Government were not convinced that there was sufficient evidence, so I tabled an amendment that would give Ministers the power to outlaw caste discrimination when they became convinced of the evidence. That was taken up in the Lords and has been accepted by the Government.
It is rare for a Back Bencher—certainly for this Back Bencher—to convince the Government about an amendment to a Bill, and I am grateful that they accepted this one. I am grateful for the co-operation that we received from the Front Bench and the flexibility that has been shown. The legislation will tackle discriminatory practices in this country which have scarred the lives of many people, and continue to do so, in all their activities in our society. The Minister said that the report could be produced within months. There will be further consultation on the basis of the evidence in the report, and the measure will be subject to an affirmative resolution of the House.
One of the issues in the first round of consultations was that the scope of those consultations did not extend to the wide range of organisations that represent the victims of caste discrimination. The consultation largely took into account the views of organisations representing some of those who have been involved in caste discrimination. I urge upon the Government, and subsequent Governments, the need for care. When the evidence report is produced, there should be thorough and exhaustive consultation with a wide range of organisations, particularly those such as the Shri Guru Ravi Dass temples, that represent people in our society who have hard and solid experience of caste discrimination over generations.
I hope that a speedy report can be brought to the House through the affirmative resolution procedure, and that at long last we can put into our unwritten constitution laws, such as exist in the written Indian constitution, that will outlaw caste discrimination once and for all, and give some protection to those who have suffered from it for generation after generation.
I echo the welcome that has been given to the Bill. It is a good Bill, and it is good that it will get through before Dissolution. There was room for improvement, and some has been achieved via the House of Lords. The inclusion of caste is welcome, and on other matters the Government have given the assurances and the clarification that were sought in Committee and elsewhere. On employment, we certainly want employers to get the best person for the job, but I welcome the restrictions on what they can ask before people are appointed.
I am happy to agree with the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) that many measures are not as strong as they could have been, and I agree that the Bill could have been stronger on many issues. It could have done with a purpose clause, as we said in Committee, and with guidance on how the courts are to deal with conflicts between different protected characteristics. As we also said in Committee, there is some concern among religious schools that when there is a conflict between two different protected characteristics, religion comes last. I accept that in Committee the Solicitor-General gave an assurance that that was not the Government’s intention, but it would have been good to say so in the Bill.
On a personal note, I welcome Lords amendments 93 to 95, and in particular amendment 95, the subject of which has been debated at length in Committee and on the Floor of the House. The wider religious public felt that the Bill represented a tightening of the previous legislation, whatever the Government might have said, and it would have incorporated positions that the Government had not intended to include. Youth workers were originally mentioned in the explanatory notes, and some did not realise that such workers are in many ways junior ministers, or junior priests, who lead young people spiritually in just the same way as ministers, priests and pastors.
Within church and religious organisations, belief and practice are seen as important and tied together, and to say, “Such and such behaviour has nothing to do with the job,” shows a lack of understanding about what religious people think. It was disappointing that the Government did not give ground on those issues before, but I welcome their acceptance of the idea now.
That leaves in the air the relationship between the Church and the state, but that question is somewhat wider than our debate about the Bill. However, the state must be wary of becoming too involved in religious groups and how religious organisations operate. The danger is that many law-abiding citizens may be unnecessarily antagonised, and we do not want to go there. However, I welcome the Bill as a whole, and the amendments.
I shall be brief, because there is not much time and others might wish to say something. First I thank all those who helped to support the agreement on the amendment about discrimination by caste and descent, otherwise known as discrimination against Dalit peoples. There has been a long campaign by many people, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) has played a big part in that, as have others. I was pleased that the Lords finally inserted that measure, because it at least recognises that in this country there is a problem of discrimination by caste and descent. It is a tiny part of the massive amount of discrimination that exists throughout the world, whereby 200 million lower-caste individuals are systematically discriminated against. In parts of the sub-continent they are killed, they live awful lives, do awful jobs, end up fundamentally underachieving, and their children are unable to receive a proper education.
I say that because India has, on the face of it, a constitution that absolutely outlaws such discrimination, yet it goes on because of the lack of representation, the authorities’ lack of will to investigate and a lack of any ability to prosecute those who perpetrate it. Discrimination in this country is nothing like as bad as that, but there is evidence of systematic discrimination, and I am pleased that the Minister has ordered an investigation. I am extremely disappointed that the Equality and Human Rights Commission refused to undertake it, because its function is to investigate discrimination, particularly when there is prima facie evidence that it should be investigated. I hope that the commission will mend its ways on that matter.
If and when we reach the point at which regulations must be introduced, I hope that the House will support them. Above all, I hope that any cases that are brought to the attention of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, or any other competent authorities at that point, will be investigated, and where necessary prosecuted, so that we are quite clear that in this country we are not prepared to accept such discrimination, and that in the councils of the world, British Government representatives will act accordingly to ensure that it is outlawed worldwide. Such discrimination is monstrous, and it is practised against a large number of people. I am pleased that we have made this progress today, and I thank the Minister for it.
I would like to draw the Minister’s attention to the explanatory notes and the fact that, in relation to the Human Rights Act 1998, Baroness Royall of Blaisdon has said she believes that the Bill’s provisions are compatible with convention rights. In respect of that, I should like to comment briefly on and quote from the recent important and seminal speech by the Lord Chief Justice himself about these matters. He said:
“The primary responsibility for saving the common law system of proceeding by precedent is primarily a matter for us as judges…Are we becoming so focussed on Strasbourg and the Convention that instead of incorporating Convention principles within and developing the common law accordingly as a single coherent unit, we are allowing the Convention to assume an unspoken priority over the common law? Or is it that we are just still on honeymoon with the Convention? We must beware. It would be a sad day if the home of the common law lost its standing as a common Law authority.”
I too make those points, and many others are contained in that very important speech made by the Lord Chief Justice on 17 March. Mr. Geoffrey Robertson QC has made similar remarks with regard to the European convention. Such concerns lie at the heart of a lot of this legislation. Many of us are very keen on the idea of fairness and equality, but should that stem exclusively from abstract principles adjudicated in Strasbourg? As the Lord Chief Justice also points out, there is now an overlap with the European Court of Justice; I have been warning about that in the House for several years.
We are moving in a direction that has been referred to by the Lord Chief Justice, Geoffrey Robertson QC and Lord Hoffmann in a speech that he made some months ago. Many distinguished Members and former Members of the House of Lords are demonstrating that we Conservatives are right in questioning the extent to which the human rights culture, as expressed most recently by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, is going way off track.
With the leave of the House, Mr. Speaker, I shall reply to the debate. As ever, the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) has over-argued his case. I hope that he sometimes has pause for thought about how conjuring up surreal incidents of harassment—putting forward examples that have never existed and suggesting that people behave as outrageously as he wants to suggest—can be divisive.
The Liberal Democrats have broadly supported the Bill, and we are glad of that; I am just sorry that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon cannot understand how extreme his views are. The Tories say that they are in favour of the Bill, but they have ended as they began, wanting only to codify and streamline, showing no interest in mobilising the public authorities to tackle further socio-economic inequality and no interest in positive action, and coming out against anything likely to be effective in improving equal pay.
Although at the Dispatch Box the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) no doubt believes that his party is pro-equality, when its Members are off camera they are different, and the mask slips. His colleagues show him up. Contrary to what has just been asserted, the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) undoubtedly said that a bed-and-breakfast trader should be allowed to turn a gay couple away.
The Bill will work only if it is driven and pressed through society. I have listened to all that is said by the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues when the mask slips, although he is strong and fair on equality. Older people, women, victims of caste discrimination and the many other people whose lives will be improved by the Bill know perfectly well that the only Government who will drive it forward are the next Labour Government.
Lords amendment 1 agreed to.
Lords amendment 2 agreed to.
One hour having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments, the proceedings were interrupted (Programme Order, this day).
The Speaker put forthwith the Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83F).
Lords amendments 3 to 114 agreed to.